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Ajantha Mendis — Sri Lanka’s mystery spinner still unsolved in limited-overs formats

Ajantha Mendis still remains a mystery for many, especially in the limited-over formats © Getty Images
Ajantha Mendis still remains a mystery for many, especially in the limited-over formats © Getty Images

Ajantha Mendis, born on March 11, 1985, burst onto the scene as a mystery spinner and had the batsmen in huge trouble. Six years on, Mendis may not be a mystery anymore, but remains a force in one-day cricket. Nishad Pai Vaidya writes about Mendis’s career so far.

When the Indians toured Sri Lanka in 2008, a mystery spinner had all their veterans in trouble. A few weeks before that encounter, he embarrassed the younger Indian lot with remarkable figures of six for 13 in the Asia Cup final in Karachi. But, here were the veterans — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman — men who were expected to show their true class against a tyro; working him out. However, they were bamboozled, beaten and scarred as Ajantha Mendis romped home with 26 wickets in the three-match Test series. A star was born they said!

But, six years on, Mendis hasn’t quite been able to replicate the same devastation. With all the modern equipment and the planning in dressing rooms, teams have got a hang of his bag of tricks and in the longer version, they have time on their side to play him. However, in one-day cricket, he is still a major force as the paucity of time works in his favour. With batsmen trying to press the issue, they may make that mistake of reading the odd delivery. Thus, at the time of writing, his one-day record his far more impressive when compared to his Test figures. In 18 Tests, he has 70 wickets, 26 of which came in his first three Tests.

Born in Moratuwa on March 11, 1985, Mendis’s talent was recognized in school and he did make a mark with his unique brand of cricket. That uncanny element was there even then and in 2001, the Sri Lankan Army noticed him and asked him to enlist for his cricket. The official website of the Sri Lankan defence ministry notes that Mendis had lost his father the previous week. It was a good opportunity as Mendis had to support his family after his father’s departure.

After grinding it out in the smaller levels, Mendis finally made to First-Class cricket, in 2006. In his second First-Class game, he took a five-wicket haul and the mystery just continued there. In 10 First-Class matches in his debut season, he took 43 wickets at an average of 20.93. However, it was during the second season that he really made a mark. In nine matches, he took 68 wickets at an astonishing average of 10.51, with six fifers. But, his exploits in List A cricket made it more startling. In 14 games, he took 32 wickets at an average of 9.37. With that performance, Sri Lanka could not ignore him any longer. He was on the flight to the Caribbean in April 2008 for his maiden international experience!

In his first ODI itself, Mendis showed that he could be quite a handful. The batsmen did not find him easy to read and he finished with figures of three for 39. However, that game is more famous for Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s heroics of smashing 10 runs off the last two balls to win a game for the West Indies. It was during the Asia Cup that he truly dazzled as his 17 wickets took Sri Lanka to the title. The six-for in the final embarrassed some of the best young players in the world as his craft was uncanny.

Then, it was obvious that he would make it into the Test squad and he wrecked havoc. Barring Virender Sehwag, none of the other Indian batsmen could figure out his mystery. While India did hit back in the second Test thanks to Sehwag’s double, but Sri Lanka prevailed as the Muttiah Muralitharan-Mendis combination spun a web around them.

Ajantha Mendis was one of the star performers for Sri Lanka during the ICC World T20 2012 © Getty Images
Ajantha Mendis was one of the star performers for Sri Lanka during the ICC World T20 2012 © Getty Images

Mendis’s cricketing stocks only rose from that point. He got his 50th ODI wicket in his 19th game, breaking Ajit Agarkar’s record for the fastest to the milestone. In Test cricket too, he did continue to do well, but by the time the Indians returned for an ODI series in early 2009, they had a fair idea of how to tackle him. Perhaps, that changed things, but when it came to T20 cricket, he a still a force. During Sri Lanka’s run to the final at the ICC World T20 2009 in England, Mendis played a crucial role. His figures of three for nine (against New Zealand) and two for nine (against West Indies in the semi-final) showed his true worth.

By then, teams had worked him out and batsmen no longer found themselves in trouble. For his next 50 ODI wickets, he took 44 matches. But, having said that, he maintained tight control and played crucial roles in a few tournaments for Sri Lanka. At the ICC World Cup 2011, he kept a tight hold over batsmen in the middle overs and formed a potent combination with Muralitharan and Rangana Herath. He only picked seven wickets, but had bowled exceptionally well. It was quite bizarre when he wasn’t picked for the final that year. Later that year, he also took six for 12 against Australia in a T20 International.

Then, in the ICC World T20 2012 at home, he took 15 wickets, which included a remarkable six for eight against Zimbabwe. In the final against West Indies, he took four for 12, a spell during which he kept Chris Gayle quiet before snaring him. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka choked in the run-chase and Mendis’s efforts were in vain.

Meanwhile, he was out of the side for nearly two years after the Cardiff Test against England in 2011. Since then, he has played two more Tests, both against Bangladesh. During his most recent Test match appearance, he recorded a six wicket haul, but with Herath holding his place after Muralitharan’s retirement, it looks tough for Mendis to break through until the left-arm spinner calls it a day.

The mystery may not be there, but the carom ball can still stun batsmen. It is important for Mendis to maintain his art and work on it so that he remains a force. He may not have replicated his early success, but there is still a long road ahead for Mendis. With only 18 Tests and 70 ODIs behind him, there is a lot more to look forward to from the Sri Lankan tweaker.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_44)

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