Mendis responds to Test snub in style
Ajantha Mendis will be a factor in this series. It could be the Kookaburra, it could be the pitches, it could be something in the Sri Lankan air, but after his 6 for 67 against India's Test line-up, he just can't be ignored. In fact it won't be surprising if Sri Lanka call him up for one last tango with Muttiah Muralitharan, for old times' sake. Old times, which admittedly lasted only three Tests after which Mendis seemed to be sorted out.
Against his favoured opponents, though, which happens to arguably be the best middle-order of our times, Mendis - out of the squad for the first Test in Galle, Murali's last - did enough to cast doubts in selectors' minds if they were ever thinking about going the whole series without him. The main chunk of work, as it usually is with Mendis, was swift.
Mendis came on to bowl after Chanaka Welegedara had given the Board President's XI two breakthroughs, but he was now bowling to perhaps the two best players of spin in India: Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir. The first ball he bowled was clipped away for one by Gambhir. Tendulkar stretched forward and defended the second - play him like a seamer, remember? The third ball was the carrom ball, the pitch offered him turn, and the umpire seemed to have assisted on the lbw even as it seemed to be missing off. But the signs were there, he had at least beaten Tendulkar's bat, and squared him up, something he seemed incapable of doing when he played his solitary Test in India.
He troubled VVS Laxman for a longer period. The turning pitch made the carrom ball effective, Laxman was seen jabbing at legbreaks away from his body, and soon the edge came. Two quick wickets in 16 deliveries, and even though this is a tour match, memories of 2008 came back. There was soon a big shout for caught-behind against Yuvraj Singh, but the umpire said he had merely beaten the batsman. As soon as Gambhir and Yuvraj started to counterattack, Thilan Samaraweera took Mendis off. Two sharp strikes had been made, and it appeared they didn't want to expose too much of Mendis.
"By and large, it's a question of when to use him," said Ranjit Fernando, a national selector, a day before the start of the game. "You don't want to overexpose him. A precious commodity like him has to be handled as best as we can. We may probably not be 100% while handling him, we may make mistakes, but the intention is to use him in an optimum manner."
When Samaraweera was asked whether what they saw in Mendis' six overs was enough to impress them, and they later took him off to not show too much of him to the opposition, he just laughed in a manner not ruling out that that indeed was the thinking.
Fernando also said there was no way Mendis was out of their plans. "He might be devastating on a wicket that has bounce," Fernando said. "That's one of the problems he has had recently. Pitches in Sri Lanka have lacked bounce. Murali, by wearing batsmen down, has picked up wickets. But someone other than him doesn't have the patience. At the same time, it will be foolish to write him off. If you say that people have found a way to play him, he will be the first person to make you look like an idiot."
Later, when Mendis was brought back in the final session, the partnership between Gambhir and Yuvraj was flourishing. The feeling that Mendis needed to be dominated played a role in Gambhir's dismissal, when he mis-hit an attempted straight loft. With the tail - and it was a long one with Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan out - Mendis was swift, taking out Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha out cheaply. The wickets might have come easily, but the importance of a man who can run through the tail cannot be overstated.
Still, Mendis didn't bowl as well as figures of 6 for 67 suggest. The accuracy of 2008, the habit of staying at it throughout the spells, isn't quite fully back. There were a fair few long hops bowled, and he was lucky Yuvraj didn't hit most of them because they were bowled out of his reach down the leg side.
This is also just a tour game. The pressures of playing a Test are different, the mindset of the same batsmen will be different. He might not have the luxury of coming in to bowl at 67 for 2, he might not have 500-plus on the board. There are many factors to suggest this performance won't necessarily translate into success in Tests, but surely Mendis has earned the right to have a go at it.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo