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Mendis' triumph over improbability

In so much of his demeanour, Kusal Mendis is the team's kid brother. But when a ball is to be blocked, he is the Special Forces unit, awaiting orders to move in Associated Press

Kusal Mendis' first run after lunch takes him to 87. It is 13 short of a hundred. It is the number men in the opposition will say is unluckiest for a batsman. But Mendis doesn't know that. Or at least, he doesn't play like he does.

Soon, he squirts a single to square leg. Soon after, he puts a Josh Hazlewood ball through midwicket with that homespun punch-pull. When he sweeps Nathan Lyon for six in the following over, he has moved clean through the nineties in eight balls. He owns 72% of the team's runs. He is living out the fantasy of anyone to have held a bat. If at the time Mendis knows that, he doesn't celebrate like he does.

The defence has been immaculate since his amble to the crease. To the spinners, he pushes feet forward, sticks bat close to body, watches and waits. Here is a player who drags his feet at the non-strikers' end. Who lets his blade trail along the ground when strolling to his partner, mid-pitch. In so much of his demeanour, he is the team's kid brother - he is the youngest man on the field. But if a ball is to be blocked, Mendis is the Michelin-starred joint just as doors open for dinner service. He is the Special Forces unit, awaiting orders to move in.

"He's one of our guys who really has a technique," coach Graham Ford had said of him last month. How rare that is in a nation where pure technique is a breakthrough, rather than a birthright. There were at least seven years in international cricket before Kumar Sangakkara worked out a set-up that satisfied him. Aravinda de Silva needed a summer with Kent to unlock his gifts. Yet, seven Tests in, and 21 years old, Mendis sees through the dip and away-spin from Steve O'Keefe in the morning. He milks the turn into his body from Lyon. He pushes away and picks off Hazlewood's full length. Then in the afternoon, when the ball begins to reverse-swing, the drives come fresh and flowing, like a scent on the breeze. Hazlewood is drilled past his right foot. The straight drive off Mitchell Starc is more delicate, but as delectable - teasing fielders who nearly collide, and give chase all the way in vain.

Only in the stroke to get to a hundred, and in one other shot in the day, was there violence. Starc had venom for him all morning, of the verbal variety as much as with ball in hand. But when the bowler went wide, Mendis upper-cut him behind point. Next ball, the overcorrection skidded past fine leg.

Late in the day, there is that lofted on-drive flick too - the one that had the crowd sitting up and taking notice on a bleak afternoon in Leeds. Yet it was not Headingley, but Hyderabad that made a man of Mendis. Having led an unsuccessful Under-19 World Cup campaign in 2014, Mendis breezed to 156 in the little-loved Moin-ud-Dowlah three-day tournament last year, then suddenly found himself in the Test XI against West Indies, just one first-class hundred and a fifty to his name.

If he has layered improbability upon improbability in producing this innings - defusing the spinners where others have lunged and groped, scoring quickly off the fast men who have had team-mates prodding and jerking, it is because he has stacked improbabilities all his life. The son of a Moratuwa three-wheeler driver, Mendis became Sri Lankan cricket royalty when he was named 2014's Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year. Two years later, today, he put a three-hour frown on the captain of the world's top Test team. He threaded balls through the gaps of a five-man leg-side infield. He turned the Test in a new direction, and along the way, the opposition's mouthy spearhead into a mute.

"Angelo told us that they come at you very hard in the first few spells and the main thing is to get them bowling into their third and fourth spells," Mendis said after play. "So we stuck at the wicket in the best way we could. During the last couple of hours, they came with a plan to have more fielders on the leg side. We also knew that, and played the situation well."

By the time he went to stumps on 169*, the team 196 runs ahead, Sri Lanka fans had begun to hope Mendis is the man they have been waiting for. Following perhaps the bleakest seven months for this team since the turn of the century, there is a reason to fry up the fish cutlets in celebration, to break out the arrack for joy (Mendis brand, why would you even ask?).

As composed after the day, as he was against O'Keefe, or Lyon or Starc, Mendis didn't know he was playing one of Sri Lanka's great innings. Or at least it didn't seem like he does.