Colombo: When Mahela Jayawardene was translating for Ajantha Mendis in the press conference following the conclusion of the third Test, there occurred the sort of moment that throws light on the natural humours of two men, and the relationship sport binds them in.
Jayawardene would incline his head in Mendis’s direction, listen to the reply, which to every question was incredibly brief, and answer in English, looking at his young spinner from time to time to see if he had anything to add.
Then came a question on the one-day series — you’ve broken Sir Alec Bedser’s record of the most wickets in a debut three-Test series; now what?
Jayawardene started to laugh as the question neared completion. Mendis half-turned to his captain as he answered, and smiled.
“He says he will probably bowl well,” said Jayawardene, and both men broke into laughter, as mates do after an in-joke.
Warmth and candour
Whether this was a reference to the final of the Asia Cup in Karachi, where Mendis scythed through India’s batting, announcing his act wasn’t merely an oddity, we will never know; but it was a moment of such warmth and candour that it didn’t matter what prompted it.
“He’s very quiet, it’s difficult to get anything out of him,” said Jayawardene, when asked what Mendis was like in the dressing room.
“Even in Sinhalese he’s very quiet. The only time he’s bubbly is when you ask him to come and bowl.
“That’s when he has a smile. I’m sure he’ll stay the same. He has an excellent role model in Murali who has stayed very humble for all his achievements. If he can follow that, Sri Lankan cricket is in very good hands.”
Mendis’s success is an illustration of the Sri Lankan way of cricket. Where in some countries, unorthodoxy is frowned upon, beaten immediately into reassuringly recognisable patterns by coaches and guides limited by what’s passed on to them, in Sri Lanka, uniqueness is cultivated.
One needs look no further than the tripe Anil Kumble had to put up with in his early years — and indeed sometimes still — to get a sense of why freak talents and maverick methods don’t break though in other countries as readily they do in Sri Lanka.
That Kumble’s mental strength got him through is beside the point; here, every cricketer is given the time and space to develop his natural expression. Unlike John Gleeson, who gave up the wicketkeeping gloves to attempt with a table tennis ball what he had seen Jack Iverson do in Test and Shield cricket, Mendis discovered on his own several ways of propelling, kneading, and manipulating the ball, reinventing the wheel so to speak.
Thus developed a powerful run-up and delivery, designed to project a ball over 20 yards with the middle finger coiled like the spring of an ejector seat; the action also had to accommodate the other variations, the off-break bowled by dragging the fingers across the ball, the googly, also flicked through, but with the wrist flipped.
This development and the long hours spent grooving it, gave Mendis the confidence that he wouldn’t break down against the best. An understanding captain (and vice-captain Kumar Sangakkara) took it from there, planning the deployment of the Army man from an artillery regiment.
They recognised immediately that he would add a different dimension to the bowling attack. “When a bowling unit is headed in the same direction, it’s not going to be very effective in varying conditions,” said Jayawardene. “You need bowlers who can create opportunities in different, different ways.”
Yet, they didn’t rush him. They decided not to take him to Australia, but to phase his break-in with the brief: “Go out and enjoy yourself”.
His instructions were simple. He was asked to bowl wicket to wicket, a line the 23-year-old assiduously practised, for his variations were most dangerous when constantly asking questions.
During the Dravid-Laxman partnership on day four of the third Test, a rare period Mendis went without a wicket this series, he showed his bow had another string. He went around the wicket, which some seasoned spinners are loathe to do, forcing Dravid to immediately recalibrate his angles.
The move worked, strengthening his spectre — ominous signs for the one-day team that had confessed after Karachi that they couldn’t quite pick him. And Murali will wheel away as ever from the other end.