Mendis has numerous deliveries in his repertoire, all of them under control, writes Peter Roebuck
Ajantha Mendis’s rise to prominence has been a triumph for his captain and for the Sri Lankan cricket at large.
Over the years, a murky picture has been painted of Lankan cricket. The impression has been given that it succeeds almost despite itself and most especially despite its ever changing administration. In the case of the new spinning phenomenon, a bowler blessed with more deliveries than an ageing midwife, it seems that the nurturing of a gifted youth has been superb.
Mendis was spotted a few years ago, playing in a lower division of the league in Colombo. It might sound like the start of a rags to riches story but it is not as simple as that.
Already Mendis was in good hands. Far from rushing him along or trying to change him or claiming all the glory, his coach at Army club was wise to leave him to his own devices, contenting himself with filming his action and showing him the footage whenever things went wrong. The best coaches are not dictators but mirrors. As the months passed, Mendis added other balls to his off-break and leg-break. Nowadays he has numerous deliveries in his repertoire, all of them under control.
Apparently, he sends down most of them every over. Mendis’s next stroke of fortune was that the national team had fallen into thoughtful and mature hands. A lesser leader than Mahela Jayawardene, a lesser lieutenant than Kumar Sangakkara, might have insisted on including the youngster in the team to tour Australia last season.
After all they were taking on a formidable opponent in its own backyard. It must have been tempting to try to catch the Aussies unawares. Instead, they suggested holding him back so that he could gather more experience.
A far-sighted decision
Murali had been around long enough to survive the poundings dished out to spinners down under. Mendis had no such foundations. The elders did not want to risk killing their golden goose. It was a selfless and far-sighted decision.
Happy is the nation blessed with such senior players. Sri Lanka’s maligned selectors also deserve a pat on the back. Such are the machinations of Lankan cricket that their position is constantly under threat yet they were prepared to bide their time.
Marvan Atapattu did not think much of them but then he has not forgiven them for dumping him as captain. But Jayawardene has been his superior. From the outset he treated Mendis with respect, sitting down to discuss field placements with him. It is not easy to place a field for a leggie and an offie. In his early days Jaywardene was underestimated, not least by the Australians inclined to mistake his style for flashiness.
Spared a tour down under, Mendis enjoyed a more amenable introduction into international cricket. He started against the West Indies and his spin variations caused consternation. Next he was let loose against the Indians in the Asia Cup and promptly wreaked havoc. None of the batsmen from either country could tell his deliveries apart. Accordingly, they were unable to attack him with the certainty required in those hectic capers. Evidently Mendis belongs to the rich tradition of Sonny Ramadhin and Johnnie Gleeson, exceptional finger spinners able to send down a wide range of balls without any discernible change of action.
India can expect a hard fight in this forthcoming series. Sri Lanka is making the most of the resources at its disposal. The home team fields several worthy warhorses, a varied attack and plays with passion. Clearly the hosts have two other vital weapons, intelligent leadership and an emerging bowler whose time has come.