When the words "mesmerise" and "bamboozle" are uttered in the same sentence to a bowler who has just made his international debut, it makes one sit up and take notice. Those where the very words uttered by Tony Becca in the Jamaica Gleaner when Ajantha Mendis made his debut against the West Indies on the 10th of April 2008.
"Mendis bowls everything. With a smile on his face as he caresses the ball before delivering it, he bowls the offbreak, he bowls the legbreak, he bowls the googly, he bowls the flipper, he bowls a straight delivery, he bowls them with different grips and different actions, he bowls them with a different trajectory and at a different pace, he disguises them brilliantly. The result is that he mesmerises, or bamboozles, batsmen," Becca wrote on the Gleaner after witnessing Mendis on debut.
Mendis’ first class record was enough to get Dwayne Bravo thinking,
"To be honest, when we saw his stats – after 19 first-class matches, he had 111 wickets at an average of 14.54 – we knew he had to be bowling something good," Bravo told reporters during Sri Lanka’s 2008 tour to the Caribbean.
I must admit I don’t recall a single Sri Lankan player – past or present – to have brought this much excitement to the game this soon. Sri Lanka does have the likes of Murali, Jayasuriya and Sanga, all stalwarts of the game, and players who have earned praise for their efforts over the years, but they would be quick to admit that Ajantha Mendis’ rise to fame and success has been something even they could only dream of at the start of their careers.
My first glimpse of Mendis was during an encounter between Basnahira North and Wayamba in the 2007/08 season of Sri Lanka’s Inter-Provincial Limited Over Tournament. He picked up Kaushal Silva LBW with a googly, and then picked up Avishka Gunawardene, a batsman who has represented Sri Lanka at the highest level, with another googly. Only this time it was even more comprehensive. Gunawardene was beaten all ends up trying to play on the on-side. The ball which pitched on leg stump beat the outside edge of the bat and trapped him LBW. Off-stump was sure to be pegged back if the pad wasn’t in the way.
The commentator on at the time (Roshan Abeysinghe) is now Ajantha’s Manager and Wayamba’s skipper was none other than Mahela Jayawardene. It all just gives me a strange feeling that everyone behind Sri Lanka Cricket knew something special was about to unfold.
Ajantha Mendis has achieved so much in such a short space of time that it can be hard to fully grasp his achievements. Four test matches is hardly enough matches to be able to judge the ability of a player. The fuss however is not for no apparent reason and it would be a crime to call his achievements a flash in the pan. In his short career Mendis has made seasoned campaigners and battle hardened batsman who were considered the best players of spin look like under 13 school boy cricketers. The look on Rahul Dravid’s face when Ajantha dislodged his off-stump to claim his first test wicket was priceless. Dravid could not believe that he had been deceived. VVS Laxman was nailed twice with the googly – it was apparent that knowing what a googly looks like out of the hand was not enough to cope with this man Mendis.
In four test matches Mendis has taken 26 wickets against India and 7 wickets against Bangladesh. The seven Bangladeshi wickets came in just one test match and the 26 Indian scalps in three. In the process he managed to break a 62 year old record held by Sir Alec Bedser of England. Mendis’ 26 wickets at 18.38 apiece was the record for most wickets by a debutant in a three-Test series. Ajantha Mendis ended the series against India as the highest wicket taking bowler from the Sri lankan camp. Only once before has anyone over shadowed Murali’s haul of wickets in a test series, and that too was as a result of Murali playing just one test match.
One day international cricket has brought greater success, Mendis averages 10.12 in 18 ODIs, which translate to a wicket every 10 runs conceded.
In the 2008 Asia Cup finals Mendis took 6-13 to destroy a strong Indian batting line up which appeared to be making light work of Sri Lanka’s total of 273.
Mahela Jayawardene brought Mendis on ahead of Murali in only the ninth over – rarely does Mahela introduce a spinner into the attack during the power play let alone as early as the ninth – It was evident Sri Lanka was on the verge of loosing the Asia cup final if the Indians continued in the manner they were going.
Turning to a 23 year old newbie over Muttiah Muralitharan would be considered foolish by most, but not for Mahela.
Mahela had seen enough of Mendis at the domestic level to know the situation demanded magic, and Mendis had what it took for something special to unfold.
Unfold it did.
India, considered at the time to be on par with the Aussies, were left speechless. They were in utter disbelief that a virtual unknown ripped through their batting line up and bowled them out for 173, to finish with the ninth best bowling figures in an innings, and the best bowling figures ever in the Asia cup tournament.
Mendis was also on the verge of a hattrick in the Asia cup final, umpire Simon Taufel’s incorrect decision deprived him of that special feat.
When Ajantha was first introduced into the attack, Aamer Sohail the former Pakistani captain on commentary was heard saying, "He is taking deep breaths…deep breaths," insisting that Mendis looked like he was under pressure. Little did Aamer know that this supremely confident 23 year old is as laid back as they come, and accomplished Indian batsman such as Yuvraj would be considered his Bunny by the end of the year.
In six encounters between the two Mendis has dismissed Yuvraj Singh four times.
“Ajantha is an aggressive bowler and in fact he wanted more close-in fielders than the ones I offered him,” Mahela told the media during the post match press briefing, at the end of the 2008 Asia Cup final, speaking volumes of the young man’s confidence and character.
T20 cricket has been equally lucrative for Mendis – 11 wickets at an average of 5.00 and an economy rate of less than five runs per over.
So what is it about Ajantha Mendis that makes him the wicket taking machine he is?
The Indians have turned to a video analyst who claims to have figured his variations out. Judging however by the response of the analyst in a recent TV interview aired on Ten Sports, it appeared Ajantha had the analyst as baffled as the batsman facing him.
When you look to a bowler’s mannerisms, approach to the wicket and run up in order to identify the Carrom ball from the off spinner, you would think the bowler has won yet another battle. India’s video analyst had resorted to picking Mendis’ variations through his body language and not his hand.
Every time Mendis fools a batsman – which is often – he does so with the ghosts of Bosanquet, Iverson, Gleeson and Ramadhin looking on proudly. Are there common themes that bind these strange creatures together? Mystery is an obvious prerequisite. – Micheal Atherton, TimesOnline, UK.
The Mystery that revolves around Mendis lies in the batsman’s inability to pick the delivery which comes in to him from the one that leaves him. Ajantha Mendis’ main strike weapon – now commonly known as ‘The Carrom ball’ – is a delivery which is flicked out utilising the index and middle finger. At the point of release the delivery resembles an off-spinner turning into the batsman, but thanks to a last minute flick of the middle finger, the ball pitches and moves away from the batsman.
Picking the Carrom ball is the least bit of a batsman’s worries when he has five other deliveries to contend with. Mendis also bowls an incredibly well controlled Googly which is disguised so well that good players of spin bowling are found wanting.
Last year was a special season for Balapuwaduge Ajantha Winslo Mendis and who knows what 2009 will hold?
It is only fair to acknowledge that Mendis will have a bad game at some point in his career, but that wont necessarily mean the mystery has been solved. It would only mean that despite his great ability, he is only human. Let’s hope that achieving too much too soon has not raised the bar too high. Regardless of how his career pans out there will always be something about Mendis.