No. 48 November 8, 2009

Mendis arrives

The man who made every ball compelling

Colombo, 25 July 2008

I have never watched cricket more intently. Australia in India 2000-01, and the 2005 Ashes were both engrossing drama, but neither made me want to not miss any part of them as much as India in Sri Lanka, 2008, did. Sehwag played the innings of the year in Galle, Murali was his devious self, Jayawardene silken, the umpiring decision reviews had to be watched, Ishant bowled a rousing spell, but it was Ajantha Mendis who demanded every ball be watched.

And it was challenging, to watch every ball of long spells closely, trying to read from behind (I was watching on TV) what it would be - regulation offbreak, carrom ball breaking away, the two-fingered googly, or the non-spinning carrom ball. It was rewarding, too, for this was a bowler unlike any I had seen.

In July 2008, Mendis was a complete mystery. He didn't grow in the public eye, he spoke only Sinhala, his captain didn't talk a lot about him in public and admitted to not knowing - at times - what fields to set for Mendis because he didn't know what he was going to bowl.

The function of Mendis' left hand could not be overstated; it was like the final salute. Abdul Qadir used to hold it up in the air before he started to run in, Mendis' left came down with the index finger stuck out, ruling the batsman out even before he had bowled. When he beat the batsman, he grinned in a sinister manner; he knew a secret the batsman didn't.

The run-up was a letdown, innocuous-looking even: no angular run, no contortion, no getting the body into unnatural positions. He didn't impart much violence onto the ball, he seemed to merely caress it out of the hand as if sending a trained pet out to show the world another trick.

The arrival was perfect too: in his first four overs in Test cricket, he troubled Rahul Dravid with the carrom ball; in his fifth he had him bowled. It was a rare sight. Dravid stayed on the back foot, unsure of how much the ball would turn, jabbed at the wrong line, desperately tried to get his pad in line, but it was all a blur, the off stump was out, Mendis had arrived. Dravid's face, as captured in a photograph too, showed he hadn't seen anything like it before.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo