Mendis aiming 'to be among world's best'
Kusal Mendis said the prospect of raising his average from the low 30s, and the goal of being among the world's best batsmen, provided motivation to hit a big score on the first day in Galle.
Like many in the Sri Lanka top order, Mendis endured an awful tour of South Africa in which he struck only one Test fifty and averaged 23.00 across six innings. That series was preceded by a lean run in Zimbabwe, where he averaged 19.75.
His first Test knock at home in six months brought more luck. He edged his first ball to the wicketkeeper but was reprieved when the bowler was shown to have overstepped on review. From there, he played a largely chanceless innings and, thanks to being 166 not out at the close, his average has risen to 37.70. It will not drop below 35 even if he gets out first ball on day two.
"When I played Australia at home, I had an average of about 42, but then it deteriorated little by little," Mendis said. "People told me it's hard to push it back above 30 if it goes below that. After I failed in South Africa, I wanted to get it back above 35, and you need a big innings to do that. People told me that when you get set, make sure you hit a big innings. I want to be among the best ten batsmen in the world, and to get my average to 40 or 45 eventually."
The return to form was not down to a specific technical change, Mendis said, though perhaps the early reprieve did help. In previous innings, Mendis has been out driving loosely, but following that first shot, he was largely watchful through the first session. Only later in the day did he adopt the positive approach that is more familiar to his game.
"I practised hard after Zimbabwe and South Africa," he said. "The coaches, senior players and captains all told me that I can handle this level - they didn't put much pressure on me despite my failures. I corrected my backlift a bit after watching previous videos, but there weren't any major changes. Those little things I tried to change.
"I must have played a bad shot to get out first ball, but I was keen to stay there for the team after that."
Mendis' 196-run partnership with Asela Gunaratne was instrumental to Sri Lanka's strong position in the match. The two had come together with the score on 92 for 3, and batted with freedom over 43 overs to transform the game's outlook.
"Asela's in really good form after doing well in the Australia series. I had a feeling he'd get a good score, given the way he was playing. When he was at the other end, it became easier for me as well. At one time, he batted well at the other end and took the pressure off me when I was feeling a bit tired. Unfortunately he got out towards the end of the day. It was easy to bat with him."
While Galle can often be a spin-bowling paradise, so far this surface has been as lifeless as any seen at the venue over the past three years. The previous Test here, against Australia, ended in two-and-a-half days, though Mendis was also impressive in that game, top-scoring with 86.
"Last year when we played Australia here, the ball really turned," Mendis said. "This time it's easier for the batsmen, and it won't be a big difference tomorrow - maybe late in the day the ball will spin a bit more. The wicket does seem hard though, so it's hard to predict what will happen."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando