The future of Sri Lankan spin
The three-match ODI series between Sri Lanka and West Indies was not just about the hosts winning it 2-0, but also the introduction to international cricket of the new spinning phenomenon Ajantha Mendis. With Shane Warne having quit the scene two years ago and two of his contemporaries Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble nearing the end of their illustrious careers, it seemed spin was headed for a period of isolation in world cricket.
It had been that way until the early '90s when Warne, Murali and Kumble came onto the scene to keep the art of slow bowling in the limelight for more than a decade. But from the moment the Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene threw the ball to Mendis in the first ODI in Port-of-Spain, a new spin star was born to world cricket.
In his maiden international appearance Mendis had the cricket world in a spin with the way he conjured his deliveries to leave the West Indies batsmen flummoxed. Classified as an offspinner, Mendis could bowl five different deliveries in one over, which always kept the batsmen guessing.
The secret of his success has been the ability to be accurate with every delivery while at the same time displaying variety. Rob Steen on Cricinfo said: "I have just seen the future of spin bowling - and his name is Ajantha Mendis."
The veteran West Indies cricket writer Tony Becca wrote in the Jamaica Gleaner: "Mendis bowls everything. With a smile on his face as he caresses the ball before delivering it, he bowls the offbreak, he bowls the legbreak, he bowls the googly, he bowls the flipper, he bowls a straight delivery, he bowls them with different grips and different actions, he bowls them with a different trajectory and at a different pace, and he disguises them brilliantly. The result is that he mesmerises, or bamboozles, batsmen."
Dwayne Bravo, the West Indies allrounder, said: "To be honest, when we saw his stats - after 19 first-class matches, he had 111 wickets at an average of 14.54 - we knew he had to be bowling something good. Ramnaresh Sarwan had problems picking him, and from the time we saw this, most of the batsmen retreated to the dressing room, and had a close look at his hand on the TV monitor.
"I actually went and had a look at his hand on the computer, and it was still really difficult to pick him, but I found that once you are prepared to watch the ball closely, it is half the job done. He is a very good bowler, and we will have to go back to [the] drawing board to try to come up with a way to score off his bowling freely."
Jerome Jayaratne, the Sri Lanka Cricket Academy coach, said: "Mendis is unusual, freaky and has developed a ball which could be described as a 'flicker', which he releases with a snap of his fingers, which is very unusual compared to other orthodox spin bowlers." That ball is reminiscent of the former Australia spinner Johnny Gleeson, who had a similar delivery.
It has coined the term 'carrom ball' by Sri Lankan cricket enthusiast and connoisseur Mahendra Mapagunaratne, who lives in Toronto, because Mendis flicks his finger as would a carrom player flick a disc. The carrom ball is the newest invention in bowling since the doosra.
For all the adulation he received in his brief introduction to international cricket these are early days for Mendis, who has still a long way to go before he can be spoken of as Murali's successor. But the excitement he created with his first three wickets - Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy and Jerome Taylor - was more than enough for scribes to start comparing him with other spin bowling greats.
This has happened in the past to many young players who failed to live up to the expectations. One hopes Mendis fulfils the aspirations and proves a worthy successor to Muralitharan when the he finally quits the scene.
Mendis' selection to the Sri Lanka one-day team hardly raised an eyebrow. He had completed a successful second season of first-class cricket with Sri Lanka Army SC finishing on top of the national bowling averages, taking 68 wickets at an startling average of 10.51 and a strike-rate of 28.8. Thanks largely to Mendis, Army SC emerged champions of Premier Tier B.
As Army SC were playing in a lower tier, they did not get the same attention as the clubs in the more prestigious Tier A. Week after week Mendis kept on taking a haul of wickets but his name hardly figured in the headlines, that was until Army SC won the title and qualified for promotion to Tier A next season.
Mendis's one-time coach at the Sri Lanka Army, Saman Hewavitharana, under whose watchful eyes Mendis developed, described him as a 'spin mix bowler' because he uses so many different deliveries in one over. "When he joined the Army he had only the offbreak and legbreak," Hewavitharana said. "But on his own he started developing other deliveries at practice.
"All credit should go to him for the types of deliveries he bowls. He developed them all on his own by experimenting. All we did with Mendis is that we polished his bowling action and fine-tuned him. I have videoed his bowling and whenever he finds that he is not bowling with his usual rhythm I show him where he is going wrong. That way Mendis has corrected his faults and turned into a match-winning bowler."
Hewavitharana predicts Mendis will turn out to be a better bowler than Muralitharan and a better allrounder than Chaminda Vaas. "When Muralitharan broke into international cricket he had only the off spinner and top spinner," he said. "Mendis has five varieties. The secret of Mendis' success is his strong fingers with which he grips and flicks the ball.
"He is also not overawed by the big names in the game, which is a plus factor. I am sure he will make a greater impression in Test cricket where he will be able to get a lot of wickets through bat-pad catches. Few people realise Mendis' capabilities as a batsman. He bats at No. 3 or 4 for the Army and Sri Lanka can utilise him as an allrounder in the team."
Mendis was a nobody at Kadalana St Anthony's Vidyalaya where cricket was a nonentity. He was actually discovered and brought to Moratu Maha Vidyalaya by Lucky Rogers Fernando, an outstanding school cricketer in the Duleep Mendis mould. Ajantha proved an instance success winning the best bowler's prize in 2002 and 2003 in the traditional big match against Sri Sumangala College, Panadura.
"I joined the Army to play cricket," said Mendis, whose late father was a member of the Catamarans SC and played cricket. Mendis, a private in the Army, said he has been inspired by watching Muralitharan bowl. "I learnt to bowl top spin and the flipper while I was at the Spin Academy under Ruwan Kalpage. I am now working on the doosra."