England brace for Mendis challenge
It could get ugly. England, abysmal England, their top six a mess of indecision and nerves, coming across an unusual spinner they haven't played before; at the Wanderers, it might not be pretty on Friday. When England take on Ajantha Mendis, they are not just taking on their own dodgy past against quality spin, they are taking on their own dodgy past in the ODI game.
This will be the first time England face Mendis in an international and generally, sides which come up against Mendis for the first time are sides that do not live to tell a happy tale. Some of the England players faced him as a net bowler in Sri Lanka a few years ago and even then the results weren't impressive. The obligatory video tapes have been studied - Mendis' rise incidentally has coincided with a rise in the sale of video machines - and players who have succeeded against him have been approached. The pool is not that big. Now it only remains for England to play him but, as South Africa discovered on opening night, you cannot remote control Mendis into submission.
Pakistan are one of the teams to have consistently succeeded against Mendis - an anomaly given how poor their record is against all kinds of spinners ordinary and otherwise. They play him as they might a medium-pacer and in an ODI series earlier this year in Pakistan, they got similarly-styled bowlers to bowl at their batsmen on marble surfaces. Though Pakistan lost the series, their top order tore into Mendis, always attacking him early.
England don't have a collective strategy but Andy Flower, the coach, believes that they are equipped to handle him and Muttiah Muralitharan. "There is no team plan on how to play their spinners. There will be very much individual plans on how they play the spinners. That is a good challenge and I want to see who comes out of that well." Flower, a fine player of spin, would've loved it, but his players, who are not so fine, are not likely to relish it as much.
"Seeing Mendis for the first time is surprising. But our guys have had a good look at footage, we've spoken to other people who had success against him. The guys are as prepared as they can be without actually playing against him."
There is hope, for far stranger things have happened on cricket fields, and not just in the fact that England cannot possibly be as bad as they were against Australia, but in the match's location. The Centurion is this tournament's designated turner and the Wanderers, if the Pakistan-West Indies game is anything to go by, a handy track for fast bowlers.
"Certainly we're happier playing them here than at Centurion. Centurion would've played right into their hands," Flower said. "The Wanderers turned a little yesterday but the bounce and pace of the pitch might suit us better."
It might but it might also suit Sri Lanka's fast bowlers equally well, if not more. That has been behind a fair bit of their success and if there is something in the surface, or in the air, few people have exploited it better this year than Nuwan Kulasekara, or even Thilan Thushara. And it's not as if England's pace men have set the world alight recently, something Flower acknowledged. "It will help the quicks for sure but we struggled to take wickets against Australia as well. We contained them reasonably well but we struggled to take wickets."
Ultimately there is nothing as appealing, or a greater spur, as the mirage of redemption, of any kind and amount. What will drive on England more is the opportunity to distance themselves from the wreck of their last ODI series; being thrashed day in, day out by the same team is still worse than being thrashed day in, day out by a different team.
"We didn't end the summer well, and it was very frustrating for us all," said Flower. "That doesn't mean we give up on the players. We've picked these guys because of their performances in the past. Now they have opportunities in an exciting environment to play good cricket. I am confident and looking forward to seeing how they perform under pressure, which is the exciting thing about international cricket."
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo