Sri Lankan cricket’s enduring charm lies in its ability to discover these mystery bowlers who bamboozle and entertain the cricket world with their unique approach.
They don't conform to coaching manuals but simply go out and express themselves in their own style, but just as effectively.
As the Muttiah Muralitharan era was waning, Sri Lanka cricket unleashed another unorthodox gem Ajantha Mendis in 2008. It does look good while it lasts but when things start to go wrong, getting a player back on track can be akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle.
This is exactly the situation in which Lankan coaches found themselves while dealing with Mendis’ dip in form after a sensational start.
Too complicated"To suggest some remedial action, you have to have a thorough understanding of the player's technique. Mendis was new to the world, new to every one of us; his technique was not in the books, and I was not sure how to handle him. Initially, I just let him be," revealed Sri Lanka’s national spin bowling coach Piyal Wijetunge, whose work with Mendis helped him make a stunning comeback to international cricket on Tuesday.
“As time went by, I watched a lot of his videos, spent a lot of time studying him and started understanding how he executes his various deliveries. It took six months for me to get familiar with his delivery. He’s not new to me now, so I was able to help in his comeback,” Wijetunge told HT on Wednesday.
The match against Zimbabwe was Mendis’ first international since he suffered a back injury in January.
The injury was another blow during a turbulent phase where he was struggling to arrest the decline in his form, a big fall since the heady early days of 2008-09 when he bamboozled even the best players of spin from India.
The morning after bettering his own world record effort with six wickets for eight runs, Mendis didn’t forget to thank those who contributed in his success.
Among the first to receive a call was Wijetunge, who worked with the bowler for nearly two-and-half months at the Sri Lanka board’s academy at the R Premadasa Stadium.
“He’s a very nice guy, he was very happy with yesterday’s effort and said thank you. We didn’t talk about the game as such, just chatted normally,” he said.
Mendis underwent treatment in Australia and on return started working on his comeback. Wijetunga, who played one Test, said they worked on his technique from June to early August.
“Initially, for a few days he was very upset and totally off. He was struggling with his action, couldn’t bend his back. I had to keep his spirits up. We started with 12 balls, then 18 balls and gradually kept increasing till we got to one-and-half hour sessions four times a week for nine weeks.”
Mendis’ real test will come against stronger teams, but Wijetunga is confident. “He won’t get five or six but he will continue to bowl match-winning spells in this tournament.”
As for the big question, a comeback in Tests, he said: “Test is a different format. T20 is about bowling in the right area, in Tests it’s about temperament. Now, he’s been playing for three years. His approach has improved and he knows what and when to do.”