While Ajantha Mendis’ international debut is more famous for Shivnarine Chanderpaul scoring 10 runs off the final two balls of the match from Chaminda Vaas to win the game, it does not take away the fact that the mystery spinner had an excellent start. He left even the best bamboozled that would eventually fetch him a lot of success, but once the batsmen had figured him out, there was no mystery left and he was slowly sidelined.
Mendis was the original inventor of what is today called the ‘Carrom Ball,’ which is bowled by flicking the ball like a striker on a carrom board.
He would go on to taste a lot of success in his first year. In 2014, he suffered a disc fracture in the back after which his appearances for Sri Lanka were limited and did not play beyond 2015.
Many among the Sri Lankan cricket fraternity initially questioned Mendis’ inclusion as he played in the lower division for Sri Lanka Army. He served them in the Artillery regiment after the passing away of his brother, becoming the sole breadwinner of his family. Not many top Sri Lankan cricketers had faced him in domestic circuit, but he had the backing of Mahela Jayawardene and coach, Trevor Bayliss, who did not want his talent to go waste.
Mendis debuted in a game against West Indies as Muttiah Muralitharan was rested for the series in the Caribbean. The team was also further weakened by the absence of some key players like Sanath Jayasuriya, Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando and Farveez Maharoof, which paved way for some new faces to make a name for themselves. Mendis was one of them.
Mendis picked up three wickets in that match including the wicket of Chris Gayle, which triggered a mini-collapse, only to be saved by the brilliance of Chanderpaul later on. But he had made his presence felt: The batsmen found it difficult to pick him and as a result bowled many tight overs. Imagine the carnage when he gets the chance to bowl alongside Muralitharan everyone wondered. We did not have to wait long to find that out.
Mendis was just three ODIs old when he was picked in the Asia Cup squad. After going wicketless in the first match against Bangladesh, Mendis picked five, four and two wickets respectively in the next three matches and followed that up with figures of 6 for 13 in the final against India. The likes of Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma fell prey to his masterclass.
Mendis finished the series as the leading wicket-taker with 17 scalps at 8.52, economy of 4.52 and a staggering strike-rate of 14.8 balls per wicket. With video technology available at their disposal, many teams would have already looked at replays for analysis of this new-found bowling sensation – more so by India – as they would be up against Sri Lanka in the Test series next.
In ODIs, Mendis would go on to become the fastest to 50 wickets – in 19 matches - beating India’s Ajit Agarkar’s 10-year record. While in his first year in ODIs, he managed 64 wickets at 13.14, economy rate of a miserly 3.94 and picked up a wicket every 19.9 deliveries. However, post that, most batsmen got the hang of him and played him with ease – be it watching the ball off his hand or even playing him off the pitch. As a result, his numbers took a dip: He picked up 88 wickets at 28.21, economy rate of 5.18 and a bowling strike-rate of 32.6.
After picking up three five-wicket hauls in the first year, he failed to pick up a single fifer for the rest of his ODI career after that.
Tests and beyond
A memorable Test debut followed for Mendis as he once again made the Indian batsmen of the caliber of Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman suffer. More importantly, Mendis bowled well in tandem with Muralitharan and the duo wreaked havoc which were ominous signs for the teams around the world. In the process, Mendis had set the record for the most wickets in a debut three-match Test series with 26 wickets, beating Sir Alec Bedser’s record, which had stood for over six decades.
Mendis and Muralitharan formed a deadly combo in the next couple of years. In fact, Mendis picked up more wickets (39) than Muralitharan (34) in the Tests they went on to play together.
However, just like in ODIs, his form dipped in Tests too after initially doing exceedingly well. In his first year in international cricket, while he picked up a wicket every eight overs, post that he started doing so once every 14-plus overs. He also averaged a wicket every 23.05 runs initially, which later shot up to 45.83, which was a cause for concern for Sri Lanka as he was someone who was looked as a possible long-term replacement for Muralitharan.
The batsmen had figured out Mendis and it all started when India visited Sri Lankan shores once again, two years later and this time, they came prepared. The Lankans had kept mid-on open tempting the batters to play an on-drive against the carrom ball. Half the battle was won when India did not take the bait. The entire world took note of this and managed to play Mendis with a little more ease.
With the Sri Lankan domestic circuit not being among the best, Mendis never really managed to come up with alternate variations to dismiss the batsmen and once he was figured out, became a mere shadow of the bowler that one saw when he started off.
At the T20I level, Mendis was just the bowler any team would love to have. His trickery at the shortest format was a joy to watch and often made many batsmen look foolish with the sort of shots they resorted to.
Out of his 39 matches, he played 21 of those in the World T20s, helping Sri Lanka to three finals in that period, winning the one in 2014 in Bangladesh. With 66 scalps, he is Sri Lanka’s second highest wicket-taker in T20Is, behind Lasith Malinga, who tops the charts.
Mendis’ career started off with a lot of promise and he could have gone on to become a great with proper grooming. However, in his brief period at the top of his game, he was easily among the best spinners in the world. His exploits across formats, particularly during that phase will be difficult to match in the years to come.