Sri Lanka v India, 3rd Test, PSS, Colombo August 7, 2008

Mendis's rapid rise surprised us - Jayawardene

Jayawardene: "He's got a very good head above his shoulders, he thinks quite well, listens to what we need to do and he adapts well" © AFP

Regardless of the outcome of the third and final Test between Sri Lanka and India, the astonishing bowling of Ajantha Mendis will be a highlight of the series. His meteoric rise and popularity have pleasantly surprised his captain Mahela Jayawardene.

"When we saw him we knew we had to develop him in the right manner," Jayawardene said on Thursday. "We never expected him to be this successful early in his career, probably because he hadn't played that much of first-class cricket. We thought he'd take a bit more time to settle in.

"But he has surprised a lot of us, as well as other people, in showing what he is capable of doing. He's got a very good head above his shoulders, he thinks quite well, listens to what we need to do and he adapts well, which is a good sign. It means he will definitely improve as a bowler because that's what he needs to do at this level and be very competitive."

Mendis is the leading wicket-taker in the series with 18 wickets from two Tests, which is two more than Muttiah Muralitharan and six more than India's best bowler Harbhajan Singh. He needs just six more wickets in the final Test at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium to break Muralitharan's bowling record of 23 wickets for the series achieved in 2001.

For the past decade or more Sri Lanka had to rely on the bowling skills of the veterans Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, and Jayawardene sees Mendis's sudden arrival as a blessing.

"It's a definite advantage to have a guy like Ajantha to back up Murali and Vaas," Jayawardene said. "That's where we lacked somebody, that strike option apart from those two guys.

"Unfortunately the other strike bowlers are injured Lasith (Malinga), Dilhara (Fernando) and (Farveez) Maharoof. That's something we can't control right now. Hopefully these guys can come into the set up, so that's going to give us a potent attack. We'll have a lot of options."

Not only has Mendis struck fear into the hearts of the opposition batsmen but he has suddenly become the most sought-after sports personality in Sri Lanka. In the past fortnight he has been signed up by the country's leading bank - Bank of Ceylon, a leading supermarket chain Cargills and the mobile phone company Dialog as their brand ambassador.

Asked whether such financial attractions would take Mendis' focus away from cricket, Jayawardene said: "I don't think he is going overboard. You need to give the guy a break. These opportunities don't come that often. If the sponsors are willing to sign him up then I'm quite happy that he is getting all these opportunities. I am sure Ajantha realises what his priorities are. He hasn't missed any practice sessions, or any training sessions or any treatment. His priorities are pretty much straight-forward. He knows he needs to do a lot of hard work to be at this level and be consistent."