Cricket has changed. And one of the most unwanted changes is that it is now littered with too many robotic, over-coached, mechanical players. It's not hard to see why: technology is better than before, it's easy to spot flaws in, say, a bowler's action even before he makes it to the highest level. The stakes are higher than before, and a pursuit for perfection at times leads to homogenisation of skills. But even in this day and age, Sri Lankan cricket is a breeze of fresh air.
There has to be something right with the system where Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, and Lasith Malinga all escaped coaches who would want to correct them. There has to be something good with the system that no-one went up to Ajantha Mendis, in his formative years, and asked him to make up his mind as to whether he wanted to be an offspinner, a legspinner, a non-spinner, or a medium-pacer, or whatever he wanted to call himself. Or we would not be fortunate enough to see the marvels of Mendis today. The freakiest part about his bowling is he doesn't get into unnatural positions, doesn't seem to make a lot of violent actions using his wrist and fingers; he just caresses them out of his hand.
When Mendis came in to bowl today, Pakistan had scored 99 for 2 in 23 overs, and it was not beyond their middle order to pull the chase off. But in his second over of bowling stuff that not many know how to classify, he struck with a topspinner to get Mohammad Yousuf, no less. Then he got the well-set Shoaib Malik with a middle-finger-flicked legbreak, and finished up with two more wickets off straighter ones to quell Pakistan's chances. Of all the various deliveries, the topspinner proved to be the most lethal today. On a track where the ball is spinning, a straighter one can be the most lethal, and so it was with Mendis' topspinner today.
"We don't correct our cricketers," Mahela Jayawardene said after Sri Lanka's comprehensive win. "That's something entirely wrong if you do that. We encourage them to be as natural as possible and just guide them in the right direction. That's all we do.
"We have a spinners' clinic, and a fast bowlers' academy. He [Mendis] was picked up when he was playing Division II cricket for the Army back home. When he was picked we knew he had a lot of potential. Even though he didn't have control initially, he went through the academy for about a year or so. After then we knew he was ready so we picked him for provincial cricket. It was important to have him with Murali at the same time before he [Murali] finishes."
Captaining such a bowler, especially setting fields for him, can never be easy. Jayawardene, though, is taking it easy with Mendis. "He actually came up with six deliveries when he came to the spinners' clinic," Jayawardene said. "What we told him was to let us know what he had more control with. We have asked him to use that delivery more right now, and he will keep improving on the other ones.
"We have asked him to do what he is comfortable with. I have sat down with him, and have given him a few fielding set-ups where we can actually manage to cover all areas so that we don't have to make changes for his different deliveries. We have a basic set-up where the batsman also is not sure what to expect."
And if the batsman has managed to unsettle him, it is not the eventual triumph for him. "Depending on the batsmen and where they are looking to attack him, we have a chat with him. That's where the [Sinhalese] language comes in handy because the others [opponents] don't understand what we are speaking."
Mendis is definitely another chapter in the art of spin bowling. So far in his career, Mendis, with his variations, has proved incredibly difficult to get away when the batsmen are looking to score quick runs. In limited-overs cricket, the batsmen come at him; he doesn't have to lure them into throwing their wickets away, an essential part of a spin bowler's arsenal - something he will definitely have to do in Test cricket. So far he has deceived batsmen who have been more adventurous; it remains to be seen if he can set up heists against more circumspect opponents.