That Ajantha Mendis took the cricket world by storm with his matchwinning performance in the final of the Asia Cup did not come as a surprise to those who have been watching him in Sri Lanka over the last couple of years.
The reasons for his success are quite clear — he is extremely unusual in the way he bowls, he was kept back from the Indians in the league match and sprung on them in the final, and some of India’s young batsmen played regrettable shots. What is a surprise is that in this day and age someone was kept far enough away from the limelight till a big occasion like the final of an ODI tournament.
Today, when every cricketer is hailed as the next big thing even when he makes small strides in domestic cricket, the temptation to talk up Mendis must have been high, but to Sri Lanka’s credit, they resisted, and reaped the rewards.
Balapuwaduge Ajantha Winslo Mendis, only 23, first began to be noticed when he made his debut for the Sri Lankan Army in a 50-over domestic match in late 2006. But his first game was anything but eventful and he ended with seven wicketless overs. What did catch the eye was his manner of delivery.
Across the subcontinent, when cricket is played on the streets, usually with a tennis ball, spinners use their fingers in dextrous ways to vary the direction of spin. The soft ball allows bowlers to bend a finger back while holding the ball, and flick it at the point of delivery, in much the same action that is used to send a carom striker in the direction of a coin. That Mendis could do this with a cricket ball, and accurately, set him apart from others, who normally resort to conventional methods when they have to graduate to the hard ball.
Amazingly, when he made his first-class debut soon after, he again went wicketless in 24 overs, but the army kept its faith. Since then, till he made his international debut, Mendis has picked up 111 wickets from only 19 matches at a staggering average of 14.54 and a strike-rate of a wicket every 33 balls.
“The thing with Ajantha is that he has served with the army. He has seen things you and I only read about in the newspapers,” Kumar Sangakkara said of Mendis. “Those are the kind of things that will toughen you up. With the situation in Sri Lanka being what it is, that is real pressure, not playing cricket.”
All along, the one strength Mahela Jayawardene underscored in his young bowler was “the ability to take punishment”, even as he sought to downplay the hype around Mendis. Jayawardene was one of those who was not taken aback at Mendis’ success. “Mendis is something special and for a while I've been telling some of the guys to look out for him.”
Trevor Bayliss, the Australian who coaches Sri Lanka, was as befuddled as some of India’s batsmen. “I could tell you about his variations if I knew what they were,” he answered frankly soon after Mendis had left the West Indies in come discomfort earlier in the year.
But what will give batsmen around the world a moment for pause is just how uncannily similar the methods of Mendis and Anil Kumble are. It sounds odd at first, and how the two bowlers achieve their ends is different, but the result is remarkably similar. Both bowl stump to stump from what appears to be a medium-pacer’s run up. Both don’t spin the ball a great deal, but just enough, both ways, to beat the bat. Both succeed more often with the ball that does not turn, but rather skids on quickly and straight.
At the moment, Kumble and Mendis are separated by an ocean of international achievement. For Mendis, the future begins now, when he will be closely scrutinised and his action analysed by all manner of experts with all the technological aids available. Soon people will be able to pick him and his variations, and they will know what is coming at them. Whether they will then be able to keep the ball out is the big question.