The month of Mendis
Test cricket is alive and well and Neil McKenzie is to be thanked for it. There is nothing like a stubborn, hard-nosed hundred that grinds the opposition into submission and earns an improbable draw. When McKenzie walked out to bat for the second time at Lord's, South Africa had two days and four overs to bat out to ensure they didn't go down in the series in the first Test. Hour after hour of resolute defence followed, until England could take no more, and the match was saved. McKenzie batted nine hours and 13 minutes in all, faced 447 deliveries, and scored 138. An anomaly his innings may have been in the context of modern-day cricket, but it turned the series on its head: South Africa managed to escape scar-free, and went on to destroy England at Headingley.
July 2008 will be remembered as the Month of Mendis. Thus far secure reputations took a battering as Ajantha Mendis put India's batsmen to the sword: first the one-day marauders in the Asia Cup final, and then the real deal, the Fab Four, in the SSC Test. The batsmen's energies were mostly spent trying to read what Mendis was going to bowl - in itself a feat calling for considerable skill. Even if they did read him, it amounted to nothing: Mendis still managed to beat them in the flight, and bowl accurately, giving away no free runs. In the SSC Test, his first, he bowled 45.5 overs, which included a total of two bad deliveries. He took 6 for 13 in the Asia Cup final, and two four-fors at the SSC, comprehensively deceiving Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman twice each, mention of which he wouldn't mind on his gravestone.
The Dubious Debut
He turns 30 today, he spent the last 24 years of his life in Australia, he is a roof tiler by trade, and he played in the Headingley Test for England. No selectors worth their salt like to be known for their consistent policies, it would seem, and England's are no different. When Ryan Sidebottom got injured, just before the second Test of the series, they sprang a surprise - Darren Pattinson - that, well, surprised even their own team. Move over Matthew Hoggard, move over Steve Harmison, move over Chris Tremlett. Pattinson ended up with 2 for 95; not that he was much worse than the other England bowlers on show, but the chances are high that he has become another of those one-Test wonders Marcus Berkmann is so fascinated by.
The Lethal Weapon
Talk about springing a surprise. And dressing him in pink - the horrible kind that has not been seen on a cricket field since the glory days of West Indies in World Series Cricket. Although Middlesex were chasing only 139 in the Twenty20 Cup semi-final, the pitch was a tired one and getting slower by the minute. Step forward Tyron Henderson, the Kolpak from South Africa, with a career first-class average of 15.80, and no centuries, who hadn't batted at No. 3 all season. No sooner had he taken guard than the sixes began to fly here, there, everywhere. Henderson scored 59 off 21 deliveries to take Middlesex into the final, a thriller in which he scored 43 off 33 and bowled two crucial yorkers to prevent Kent getting three runs off the last two balls. "We think long and hard when to deploy Tyron," Middlesex captain Ed Joyce said later, as if talking of a rocket-launcher.
"This makes me feel so, so loved right now," said Kevin Pietersen, moved by a crowd reception that gave him the "the most emotional two minutes of my career so far". "This" was not just another century at Lord's, it was a century in his first Test against his country of birth, South Africa. It was a century he had most desired, at home, because - preposterous as it sounds - "before [this innings], there was a lot of speculation about me being originally from South Africa". Pietersen overcame a shaky start, and the nerves he has admitted to having when playing South Africa, scoring a faultless 152 off 181 balls. His first fifty took 73 balls, and the next came in 51. In an exhilarating final session on the first day, he scored 91. His Englishness in no doubt whatsoever now, the tattoo on his bicep has become superfluous.
When he is playing, it's hard to keep Andrew Flintoff away from the drama. Coming back after 17 Tests, he bowled, at Headingley, perhaps the most action-packed over of the month: the 25th of South Africa's first innings. The first ball got a leading edge from Hashim Amla, which Michael Vaughan claimed to have caught at short mid-off. The umpire was satisfied, and Amla happy to walk off, only for his coach, Mickey Arthur, standing just outside the boundary to motion him back because the replays were inconclusive. The third umpire proceeded to give Amla not out. A truly cheesed-off Flintoff went on to bowl a truly testing five balls: a wicket off a no-ball and four fiery short ones. Amla was up to the task, though, as he clipped one for four and managed to get his head out of the way in time to the others.
Technology is a good slave but a bad master. That was made amply clear in the SSC Test when Virender Sehwag became the first man to be given out under the review system. Murali, bowling from round the stumps, got the ball to pitch half inside the mat and straighten a touch; it hit the front pad, and deflected on to the back pad. The appeal for lbw was turned down, and during the review, Virtual Eye failed to track the deviation off the front pad. More surprisingly, the third umpire, too, failed to acknowledge the change in track and reversed his on-field colleague's decision. The ball - if you discounted the deviation - might just have gone on to brush leg stump: a decision only a brave umpire would have given in the bowler's favour.
Mendis again. Toying with Laxman. Those who haven't watched Laxman's exploits against Shane Warne might be forgiven for thinking of those as mythical after this exposé. Mendis should have had Laxman earlier in the innings, when a legbreak took the edge and bisected keeper and slip. This time, though, Mendis didn't need fielders. Two legbreaks that beat Laxman were followed by a two-fingered googly. Laxman perhaps read it, but this one turned big, and after pitching outside off, took middle and leg, sneaking through the bat-pad gap.
The Best Man
No one can accuse him of ever having failed to steal the limelight, but in the Asia Cup final Sanath Jayasuriya took a comfortable back seat to Mendis's 6 for 13. It was Jayasuriya's hundred that gave Mendis a score that he could look at defending. At 67 for 4, most other batsmen would have followed the rote method of rebuilding and then going for the final-overs slog, but Jayasuriya launched a cruel, cold-blooded counterattack, picking his bowlers, picking his areas, and running away with the game. By the time he was out, he had scored 125 out of Sri Lanka's 197 in 35.3 overs, off 114 balls, and that, as it turned out, proved to be plenty.
What's worse than pitting teams like Ireland against proper sides? Pitting them against proper sides and giving the opposition the chance to bat first. In a display of masochism, Ireland put New Zealand in in the sides' ODI last month; that inevitably led to the first instance in ODIs of both opening batsmen - Jamie How and Brendon McCullum - scoring 150-plus. McCullum fell in the 43rd over, 34 short of what could have been the first double-century in ODIs. New Zealand got past 400, only the sixth such score ever, hitting 18 sixes in the innings - the joint-record for the most sixes. And McCullum fell one short of the individual sixes record. New Zealand went on to win by 290 runs, eclipsing the previous record for the largest win by 33 runs. Irish eyes wept that day.
The Old Fox
Incredible as it sounds, Mendis was not the worst thing to have happened to international batsmen in July. Muttiah Muralitharan said Mendis took pressure off him, which could result in prolonging his career. No such thing as good riddance, eh? For those who don't know what Murali meant, refer to the previous entry. The pitch at the SSC was like the Monk who had no Ferrari to sell, until Murali and Mendis broke loose. And once that happened, Murali ran away with 11 wickets in the match, including those of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Gautam Gambhir twice each. Some things never change.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo