ESPNcricinfo Awards 2008 ODI bowling winner: Ajantha Mendis and the joy of the unknown
The mystery spinner announced himself in the Asia Cup final and India didn't know how to respond
A day before the final of the Asia Cup, Kumar Sangakkara spent all his time in the nets batting against Ajantha Mendis. He, and Sri Lanka, knew something the rest of the world had only a vague idea of.
Earlier in the tournament Sri Lanka had rested Mendis for the league match against India, giving him the big stage to announce himself. It was the most delicious build-up. They could have knocked India out of the tournament, but they chose, instead, to hide Mendis till the final.
Now was the time Mendis had to prove he was worth hiding. On a pitch where 300 had been the par score, sometimes chased with ease, Sri Lanka had managed 275, and were facing a marauding Virender Sehwag. Here Mendis was, playing in only his eighth ODI, bowling the 10th over, ahead of Muttiah Muralitharan, trying to halt the runaway train that was Sehwag, a big final and a pre-conceived reputation on the line.
Now there must be something about the upbringing of Sehwag, but he can't bring himself to respect spinners. The first ball from Mendis, Sehwag looked to charge out but had to change to a defensive lunge when Mendis bowled flatter. The second ball, Sehwag did manage to charge out, and was beaten by the fast legbreak that the world would come to know as the carrom ball. Mendis had arrived. Two balls later, Yuvraj Singh played all over a straight delivery, finding his off stump pegged back. In one over the impact had been made.
Mendis had created chaos. No one knew quite what to expect - not the Indian batsmen, not the commentators, not the experts in the studios, not even the umpires (quite a few lbws were not given in the succeeding overs because this kind of stuff had not been seen before and took time and visual evidence to become believable). Amid the mayhem, Mahela Jayawardene seemed almost as kicked as Mendis when the wickets fell, getting into ecstatic little jigs he, Captain Cool, is not known for.
Suresh Raina was the next to go, in Mendis' third over. On the surface it was a horrible pull shot, but Mendis had given away so little until then that the runs had stopped coming at all - even a slightly shorter delivery was a bonus and had to be put away to put Mendis off. This one sped off at pitching, and beat a hapless Raina.
Rohit Sharma was made to look the silliest - in Mendis' next over. Rohit played Mendis like an offspinner, and looked to nudge one off the pads. The carrom ball broke away and hit the back pad; Rohit looked leg side, and walked pavilion-wards. In a jiffy 76 for 1 had become 97 for 5, and with Murali yet to come Sri Lanka had all but won.
Perhaps Jayawardene got greedy and, wanting to keep the mystery intact for future games, took Mendis off once the big impact was made. MS Dhoni then played a responsible knock, knitting a partnership together with Robin Uthappa and then with Irfan Pathan.
Then Mendis came back for the grand sign-off. In the second over of his second spell, he fooled Irfan with a googly, and then ripped through RP Singh's defence with a carrom ball next ball. The hat-trick ball was the straighter one. Pragyan Ojha played outside the line, and a big lbw shout ensued, but Simon Taufel chose to be circumspect. Wonder if the umpires will change their outlook now that they know what Mendis is capable of.
"It was like you were playing something else, and the ball was something else. I won't really blame the batsman, we couldn't pick the deliveries," Dhoni, who scored a fighting 49, said later.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo