Tillakaratne Dilshan was the deserved Man-of-the-Match for his electrifying 106 that set up Sri Lanka’s 55-run win in the rain-truncated tournament opener against South Africa, but what will give Kumar Sangakkara reason to believe in his team’s chances was the performance of Ajantha Mendis.
The mystery spinner’s efficacy has dipped somewhat since his sensational Test debut in the home series against India last year, but he remains an important cog in Sri Lanka’s bowling machine. In a short, sharp tournament where teams will only come up against a certain opposition once before the business end, the element of surprise remains potent.
As South Africa’s batsmen found out, watching videos of Mendis and negotiating his bag of tricks are two different things entirely. Graeme Smith’s stated strategy of attacking Mendis unravelled spectacularly as the slow bowler snared two wickets in as many deliveries to rip the heart out of the hosts’ top order.
When rain forced a premature end to the game, South Africa were in dire straits at 206 for 7 in pursuit of Sri Lanka’s 319 for 8, but the match as a contest had ended much earlier. A quick glance at the Duckworth Lewis charts confirmed that South Africa were 55 runs adrift of the par score of 261 given they were 7 down after having played 37.4 overs.
“It’s very difficult for batsmen who have never played Mendis earlier to read and understand him,” Sangakkara said at the end of the game. “Even if you have played him before, you still need to play him out.” The Mendis threat will loom particularly large against England, who Sri Lanka play at Johannesburg on Friday. England’s batsmen are coming off a 1-6 thrashing at Australia’s hands and have a well-founded reputation of being sitting ducks against quality spin.
If Mendis was the bowling boost that Sri Lanka needed, Dilshan showed that he had his tactics spot on. “I had premeditated to play the scoop when the bowler was halfway through his run-up. When I play the shot it forces a bowler to think twice before he delivers his next ball,” explained Dilshan, who pulled off his patented stunt against left-arm seamer Wayne Parnell.
The disruption of flow showed just what Sri Lanka are capable of. While other teams are hogging the headlines, the Sri Lankans are quietly preparing to spoil the party for some of the big guns. South Africa got the first taste, but you couldn’t help but feel that there’s a lot more gas in the tank as far as this team is concerned.