Sri Lanka January 3, 2009

And then there was Mendis

How the advent of one player promises to mark the beginning of an epoch for a country's cricket

A new dawn: Mendis has already almost taken over the mantle of main match-winner for Sri Lanka © AFP

Two thousand eight, according to Chinese astrology, was the Year of the Rat. For Sri Lanka cricket, it was the year of Ajantha Mendis.

The 23-year-old burst into the limelight in the Caribbean in April, bemusing the best of West Indies batsmen, who were at sea against the five varieties of spin he bowled. When Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene threw the ball to Mendis in the first one-day international, in Port-of-Spain, little did anyone realise that it would herald a new genre of spin.

Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan came into the limelight at a time when the art of spin bowling was dying. In the next 15 years or so they raised it to a level it had never attained before. But nothing lasts forever. Warne left the game in 2007 and Muralitharan is nearing the end of the road. The old fears were back that spin would become a dying art. Then came Mendis.

Dwayne Bravo, the West Indies allrounder, recalled his first sighting: "[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." However, the best quote came from Rob Steen, on Cricinfo: "I have just seen the future of spin bowling - and his name is Ajantha Mendis."

Mendis really came into the limelight in his second ODI series, the Asia Cup in Pakistan, where he spun his team to a remarkable 100-run victory over favourites India in the final in Lahore.

He continued to torment the Indian batting when they toured Sri Lanka for a three-Test series and lost it 2-1. The difference was Mendis, who broke a 62-year-old record, held by England fast bowler Alec Bedser, by taking the most wickets in a debut series - 26. The strong Indian batting line-up of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and VVS Laxman was left so bemused by the mystics of Mendis' spin that they managed only three fifties between them.

With Mendis catching so much world attention it was no surprise when he won the ICC's Emerging Player of the Year award.

In a rather restricted Test calendar year, where Sri Lanka played fewer Test matches (six) than even Bangladesh (nine), the most memorable were their first Test victory in the Caribbean, by 121 runs in Guyana, and the home series win over India. The hero of the Guyana victory was Chaminda Vaas, who once again showed that he still had enough steam left, even at the age of 34, to spearhead his team to victory: he had a match haul of eight wickets to go with his unbeaten half-century. A fortnight later Vaas was cast in the villain's role when he conceded a four and then a six off the last two deliveries of the match to Shiv Chanderpaul as West Indies pulled off a stunning victory over Sri Lanka in the first ODI.

While Sri Lanka continued to impress in the longer game, their unpredictable batting was a cause for concern in the limited-overs matches, where they continued to lose bilateral contests but managed to come out on top in tournaments - the most remarkable of those was the victory in the Asia Cup. On a more low-key note, they also pocketed the tri-nation T20 Canada, beating Pakistan in the final.

The arrival of the Indian Premier League and the rebel Indian Cricket League benefited Sri Lanka's present and former cricketers with monetary gains of the sort SLC could never dream of matching. Overall, 15 of Sri Lanka's top cricketers were signed in both tournaments.

Sri Lanka's women cricketers once again had to be satisfied with the runner-up title when they lost the Asia Cup final, held in Sri Lanka, to India. Pakistan and Bangladesh were the other participating countries. The Sri Lankan women, however, gained some consolation later in the year when they defeated West Indies 3-2 in a thrilling five-match one-day series at home. Opening bat Dedunu Silva and the captain, Shashikala Siriwardena, entered the top 20 of the ICC ODI women's batting rankings for the first time.

First blood: Sri Lanka celebrate their maiden Test win in the West Indies © AFP

On the domestic front Sri Lanka's cricket continued to falter under an interim administration. When former captain and present politician Arjuna Ranatunga was appointed chairman, replacing businessman Jayantha Dharmadasa, by the country's president, there was plenty of hope that with his vast cricketing experience Ranatunga would put Sri Lankan cricket, which has been plagued in the past by alleged misappropriation of funds, on the right track. But Ranatunga fell out with the national team over the IPL contracts, and then made unwarranted remarks against the Indian board, which soured the good long-standing relationship the two countries had enjoyed over the years. He had constant clashes with the sports minister, whom he accused of not allowing him to do a proper job. By the end of the year everything pointed to a change in administration, with either a new interim committee being appointed or elections being held.

New kid on the block
Ajantha Mendis, who promises to become Sri Lankan cricket's new chief match-winner, succeeding Muttiah Muralitharan, who has held the mantle for many years.

Fading star
Workhorse Chaminda Vaas began the year on a high, bowling his country to their first Test victory in the Caribbean, but has struggled since to keep his place against a whole crop of youngsters breathing down his neck.

High point
Following a poor one-day series in Australia, and a 2-0 loss to West Indies in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka were under pressure to perform in the Asia Cup. They did it in magnificent style, beating India in the final.

Low point
Losing the first ODI to West Indies to a last-ball six when victory was well within grasp.

What 2009 holds
An unscheduled tour to Pakistan for three Tests will boost Sri Lanka's output for the year to 10 Test matches - possibly 13 if they tour India later in the year. The year begins with the second Test against Bangladesh, followed by Pakistan, whom they will play away and at home in six Tests. They also host New Zealand for a three-Test series.