Challenging new role for Mendis

How will he react to having to lead Sri Lanka's most inexperienced Test attack in a long time?

Ajantha Mendis is delighted after picking up Shakib Al Hasan's wicket, Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Chittagong, 2nd day, January 4, 2009

Without Murali putting pressure at the other end, how will Mendis cope against a side which has played him well?  •  AFP

Two teams best suited to make a mockery out of structures and 'processes' promise an unpredictable Test, which no longer favours Sri Lanka because of Muttiah Muralitharan's absence. Anyone out of a 17-year-old prodigy, a former pariah refusing to fade away, a 31-year-old left-arm spinner, a six-Test old mystery spinner, a 30-year-old fast bowler waiting for his Test debut, an uncapped 22-year-old who took three wickets in the first over of the World Twenty20 semi-final but is known for his prolific run-scoring in domestic cricket, and an offspinner who has bowled big legbreaks only in limited-overs internationals could decide this match.
The most important strand of this story, though, is Ajantha Mendis. Like it should be with any self-respecting mystery spinner, Mendis' last year was eventful. This time last year, he was embarrassing the Indian Fab Four in Tests, only to suggest his mystery was wearing off in the subsequent ODIs against India and Pakistan and the IPL, before coming back to mesmerise the world again in the World Twenty20.
Now there is no Murali, at least for the next five days, to build pressure from the other end, or to do the damage when Mendis is struggling. How will he react to having to lead Sri Lanka's most inexperienced Test attack in a long time? If his captain is to be believed, expect a new facet of Mendis to surface. "He is going to enjoy it," said Kumar Sangakkara. "He is a very, very tough character, he has got a good head on his shoulders, he is going to enjoy going out there, being the No. 1 bowler, and taking the pressure on."
What about Pakistan being reputed to playing him well? Like Younis Khan said it is not about doing anything differently, but just being able to read him well. "Mendis has changed from his last Pakistan tour," said Sangakkara. "Sides will have different ways of playing him, some will be more successful than others. Pakistan of course have been playing him quite well, but that doesn't mean Mendis is not going to be effective against them. We just need to fine-tune our thinking and field settings, and let him be as creative as he wants to be."
Not all of the other characters might get to play but have a look at the number of debutants regardless. For Sri Lanka, one out of Angelo Mathews and Kaushal Silva will surely debut. Suraj Kaluhalamulla, who announced today that he had changed his name from Suraj Mohamed, is more likely to replace Murali because Rangana Herath, the other candidate, was flown in today from England, where he was playing minor counties.
Pakistan's Mohammad Aamer and Abdur Rauf are almost certainties unless Younis changes his mind and doesn't play three fast bowlers, which he said was an aggressive move. If Saeed Ajmal is preferred to Danish Kaneria, even he will be getting his first cap. It will be a debut of sorts for Mohammad Yousuf as well with international cricket having changed drastically since he last played.
The pitch and conditions only add to the unknown. The rains made sure the whole ground had to be covered for two days before it could be unveiled it today. Then the grass was cut to make it look like a cricket field. At 10am today, after the Sri Lankan team had arrived for practice, a sea of humanity got to work to get the ground ready. It's a minor miracle in the Land of Small Miracles that the Galle International Stadium is ready to host a Test despite the rains.
While the captains sounded not dissatisfied with the outfield, the pitch remains a big unknown. It has rough patches already, and no live grass. While it all points to a big turner, there is a possibility that too much moisture might have seeped underneath, which could result in a slow turner. Both the captains refused to predict how the surface would behave. Any result from a three-day finish to a high-scoring draw is possible.
Then again this could turn out to be a regular Galle pitch, on which the old hands like Mahela Jayawardene, Younis, Umar Gul, Sangakkara could prove to be the most crucial players. And wouldn't it be fulfilling to watch some old-world cricketers outshine such exciting new talent?

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo