In the wake of Australia's domination in Galle, Sri Lanka must turn to their finger-flick spinner Ajantha Mendis for the second Test. Suraj Randiv, their offspinner, not only struggled to get wickets in Galle, he was unceremoniously knocked about, while the little left-hander Rangana Herath shouldered the spin bowling load. Now, Mendis must play.
How well I recall the first time I set eyes on the finger-flick man. Out of the fog-like mist of steamy Colombo in mid-2006 stood a dark young man with sticking-out ears and a smile as big as the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This bloke looked like a darker version of Adam Gilchrist and like Gilly he was a mix of humility and respect for the game, yet very confident in his ability. Balapuwaduge Ajantha Winslo Mendis, or BAW Mendis for short, had arrived unannounced at the Spin Sri Lanka senior training session.
He joined others such as the offie Randiv and left-armer Herath, and was now in the senior squad, one of four squads of spinners I had selected to form the Sri Lanka Spin Bowling Academy. We had squads from the under-13s (Cubs), Juniors (under-16s), Colts (under 23s) to Seniors. I had been commissioned by Sri Lanka Cricket to establish a spin-bowling academy. Each squad comprised twelve spinners - 48 of the nation's best slow bowlers, pruned from the 750 spinners we had canvassed.
"I am medium-pacer," Mendis told me in broken English and before I could tell him we were running a spin, not a pace, session, he continued: "But I am bowling finger-flicking legbreaks, top spinner, googly, offcutter, legcutter and knuckle-ball." Wow, some repertoire.
Mendis charged in from a 15-pace approach. He bowled at the speed of Shane Watson, medium-slow, and was very front-on; yet there was an air of magic about him. He laughed when he beat the bat or skittled someone, and that morning Ajantha Mendis seemed to be laughing after every delivery. For batsmen were bemused and befuddled by this man's extraordinary mix of spin and bounce.
At the time Sri Lanka was still in the grips of a civil war which had raged for 23 years. Mendis was aged two when the war began and he, along with so many others, joined the Sri Lankan army more for personal wellbeing rather than any desire to get on the frontline and shoot people. In the army you'd be assured of three square meals a day, clean clothes and good lodging. At training that day Mendis wore a Sri Lanka army T-shirt and baggy pants, plus his broad smile. He had an army-mate with him, a bloke who bowled with a similar action to Muttiah Muralitharan's, only he spun the ball off his right thumb.
That night I contacted the then Sri Lanka coach Tom Moody and told him of these two unusual spin-bowling talents. "Bring 'em down to the Test nets," he said. There, even the old master Muralitharan was moved to stay on half an hour longer to study the form of Mendis and his army-mate.
"I think he [Mendis] will be good for the one-day side," Murali said with a glint in his eye. But he reserved comments on the other bloke, whose action looked dubious. We had that army offie's action tested by the Australian Cricket Board's scientific team in Perth, and they assessed based on some footage that he bent his arm 34 degrees while bowling, way above the ICC-allowed 15 degrees. All this 15-degrees stuff is gobbly-gook to most sports people.
But Mendis was the man. I spoke with a Sri Lanka selector about him, urging his committee to pick Mendis for the national team. "We cannot pick Mendis," he said, his eyes bulging like a bulldog that had just lost a juicy bone. "Mendis is from the Sri Lanka army and not playing Premier league. He cannot play for Sri Lanka."
"But you must play Mendis," I protested. "He's in the artillery. I don't want this bowler who could be a sensation on the international stage to be put in harm's way. Get him off the frontline and into the cricket team."
When Mendis finally got his chance in the national side he was a sensation, taking 26 wickets in three Tests against India. He's had ups and downs since, but his 6 for 16 versus Australia in the Twenty20 international in Pallekele on August 8 was a pointer to what he could do to Australia in the Test series. He seems to be more effective on wickets which hold a bit, that is very slow tracks which are in abundance in the subcontinent.
These Mickey Mouse T20s and ODIs are meaningless in the context of a real, decent cricket battle. Only the Test matches really count and after the ongoing series we will be able to judge the better side between Australia and Sri Lanka.
Mendis never saw John Gleeson bowl. Gleeson was a finger-flick merchant, but he had a limited repertoire compared to Mendis' and he bowled with a flat trajectory. Whereas Mendis prefers a slow, turning wicket, Gleeson liked a green-top. He skidded the ball, rather than turned it.
His predecessor Jack Iverson was more in the Mendis mould, for he had lots of variety and operated with a high bowling arm. Iverson was in the Australian army fighting the Japanese in New Guinea and during a lull in fighting he taught himself to finger-flick spin a table-tennis ball and wondered whether he could translate that skill to a cricket ball.
There are those who think Michael Clarke's batsmen have the wood on Mendis, because they can read him from the hand. Australia's own Nathan Lyon has a refreshing approach. He concentrates on his stock ball rather than variations and that is what Mendis should be doing to. I bet the Sri Lankans can read Lyon's offbreak, just as Darryl Cullinan could probably read Shane Warne's flipper. But Warney did well almost every time he bowled to Cullinan and Lyon took 5 for 34 on debut in Galle. The bottom-line for a batsman is not just to be able to read the ball but to play it. If Mendis returns to the Sri Lanka side, Australia will be up against it, especially with Ricky Ponting absent from the Pallekele Test.