Partners in guile
Not since Michael Clarke's first match has a Test debut been so anticipated and turned out to be so spectacular. Like Clarke against India in Bangalore in 2004, Ajantha Mendis has burst onto the five-day scene in style, becoming the first Sri Lankan to take eight wickets on Test debut. Muttiah Muralitharan, who took 11 wickets at the SSC, pointed out two things after Sri Lanka handed India their third largest defeat; one, that Mendis is far more talented than he was when he debuted and two, that Mendis will take the pressure off him and perhaps extend Murali's Test career.
There is plenty of evidence supporting his first claim. Offspinners (Mendis falls under that category, believe it or not) don't usually bowl googlies. Yet there was Mendis, slipping it in silently between top spinners and various cutters. Mendis's googly is rather unconventional, when you analyse it through the slow-motion replays. He releases the ball from the back of his wrist with the seam up, and he flicks the middle finger to spin the ball.
Nothing summarised the impact Mendis has had on this Test more than the over in which he brought India's first innings to a sad close. The whole over was magnificent as Mendis set up VVS Laxman with two legcutters and then finished him off with a googly.
Laxman, who had batted supremely for a stand-alone half-century, pushed the first ball to cover but waved back the single. The second ball cut away and beat Laxman, who pushed the bat forward hoping to defend. He was beaten yet again off the third as he played down middle stump. The fourth was an orthodox offbreak and Laxman turned it to forward short leg. And the fifth was just absurd.
It was Mendis's googly, two-fingered and bowled with the wrist-spinner's action. The ball looped up outside off stump and dragged Laxman forward on the defensive. It then spun in sharply past bat and pad and crashed into the stumps. Laxman held his shot in bewilderment for a few seconds and then tucked his bat and walked off. Later the googly also accounted for Rahul Dravid, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh.
Watching highlights of Mendis run rings around India during the final of the Asia Cup recently was stunning, but to see him live, in cream, on a Test field, explains a few things. He is a rare breed, like Jack Iverson and John Gleeson, and should thrive in Test cricket. His 'flicker' ball - let's settle on that, because that's precisely what it is - could be to cricket what the knuckleball is to baseball: the erratic, unpredictable delivery that stymies big bats with its killer efficiency. It bamboozled Dravid yesterday, and that wicket set into motion a most stunning surrender to a lethal spin duo.
|Previously when teams played Murali in Sri Lanka they had the option of playing him out and making runs at the other end. That is not possible any more. In tandem, Murali and Mendis gave India's batsmen no room to breathe. It was like a pressure cooker, Murali bounding in, wide-eyed, and Mendis harrying in, arm flailing. India simply choked|
Murali's second remark could also be true for Mendis compliments his senior partner well. With all the attention focused on Mendis's every move, Murali quietly chipped away from either wide of the stumps in his 23rd Test at the SSC. Never in Murali's career has he had a spin partner who bowls so well in tandem with him. Murali and Mendis are different because of their range of variation. Mendis is quick and wicket-to-wicket while Murali is slow through the air, relying on flight and turn to flummox the batsmen.
Sample the differences in the dismissals of Laxman and Gautam Gambhir in the second innings. This time it was the length that got Laxman. Two deliveries in to his post-lunch spell, Mendis skidded one in - as opposed to turning it loopily - and Laxman was struck flush on the back pad. It was a quick delivery. Murali later dismissed Gambhir with lovely flight, drifting it in, luring him out of his crease, only to be deftly stumped.
Murali reinvented spin bowling and created a new genre. Last year he started bowling more around the stumps and that new tactic has worked for him. Here he towered over India's batsmen, bounding in and taunting them with offbreaks and doosras that were near unplayable. Dinesh Karthik perished to a doosra; quick offbreaks took care of Sourav Ganguly and Kumble. His slowness and guile meshed easily with Mendis's line and assortment.
India had a tough time picking Mendis's doosra because they didn't have much time to decide what to play. This is something Gary Kirsten, India's coach, identified yesterday. Like for his googly, Mendis uses a flick of the middle finger for his doosra. But instead of placing his finger behind the ball, as he does for the googly, Mendis positions it at the lower edge of the seam on the right side. If he develops his offbreaks with the same action, he will be tougher to handle. Another feature of his bowling is his wicket-to-wicket method; if the ball misses the bat, chances are you're lbw or stumped. On television, Mendis's cluster of deliveries is stunning, making you wonder how he can be so accurate with that bag of tricks and varying hand and wrist movements.
Previously when teams played Murali in Sri Lanka they had the option of playing him out and making runs at the other end. That is not possible any more. In tandem, Murali and Mendis gave India's batsmen no room to breathe. It was like a pressure cooker, Murali bounding in, wide-eyed, and Mendis harrying in, arm flailing. India simply choked.
But the two spinners are undoubtedly aided by intelligent field placing. Mahela Jayawardene is in a different league as captain compared to Kumble, and there was something almost uncanny in his decisions. All through the first innings he had the placements spot on - there was one waiting for the hook from Virender Sehwag, while short cover, deep square leg watched for mistimed sweeps. Today he employed a forward short leg and leg slip when Murali bowled to Sachin Tendulkar and Tillakaratne Dilshan's excellent timing worked a charm.
World-class spinners have always had a hold on certain batsmen and teams - just ask the English how much they worry about getting dominated by blonde wrist spinners and unorthodox doosras, especially those pitched on leg stump. Ask India about Mendis after this series and see what they have to say.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo