Finding a world class spinner is one thing, but treating him properly is another altogether.
Across the sub-continent you find talented spinners in junior cricket, but very few go on to become world class. Ajantha Mendis, who made his Test debut, amidst much hype, is lucky that he comes into a set-up that treasures special cricketers.
In captain Mahela Jayawardene, and Kumar Sangakkara, the captain-in-waiting, Mendis has two of the more mature individuals in world cricket to turn to. In Arjuna Ranatunga, president of the Sri Lankan board, Mendis has a man who fought tooth and nail to protect Muttiah Muralitharan through some of the toughest chucking trials a cricketer has been put through.
Understandably, Ranatunga is excited about what Mendis can achieve. “I saw Ajantha perform well in the ODIs. I am keen to see how he performs against Tendulkar and Ganguly. They play spin much better than anyone else in the world. It will be a good experience for the young lad,” said Ranatunga. “But Test cricket is the ultimate as far as I am concerned. You judge a cricketer on Test cricket, not on one-day cricket. Yes, there are records for one-dayers and there will be records for Twenty20, but ultimately people will remember what you have done in Test cricket.”
One of the wiliest captains to emerge from the sub-continent, Ranatunga was a master at getting the best out of his spinners. “I loved to play a spinner in my side and always encouraged them. In some games, I played with one fast bowler and three or four spinners,” he said.
“I always felt spinners have a different way of getting wickets, not like the fast bowlers. When I see a good spinner, I always prefer to play him in my side though there are captains who don’t like spinners.”
But it was not merely on the field that Ranatunga backed slow bowlers. When Murali was repeatedly put through the ringer for a suspect action, Ranatunga stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the authorities and Murali’s detractors. Naturally, he is proud to see Murali going strong even now. “Murali has gone through really tough times. It has made him a tough cricketer. I think he has a long way to go,” said Ranatunga, adding half in jest, “If he can do that, I am sure he can get past 1000 wickets if he uses his brains, which he hasn’t done too well in the past.
“My advice for him is to try and cut down on cricket, concentrate on Test cricket and play important one-day series.” When Mendis bowls his first ball, he’ll need to look no further than Murali for a role model. Mendis, like Murali, has a special gift. What he does with it, time will tell.