The Rise And Fall Of Ajantha Mendis

Ajantha Mendis’s bowling style affected many batsmen. (courtesy espncricinfo.com)

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The Indians feared him like the plague. The South Africans had nightmares facing him. Lord’s even credited a new delivery to him that has now become the part of cricket’s lexicon. The carom ball proved to be the undoing of many famous batting line ups.

The inventor of this deadly delivery announced his retirement from all forms of cricket last week. The likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah, Muralitharan provided much joy to local cricket fans for well over a decade. Ajantha Mendis provided the same thrills albeit during a short span.

Not many international cricketers have had the impact Ajantha Mendis had as a rookie. There was little doubt when he came into the scene that Sri Lanka had found someone to fill the big shoes of Muttiah Muralitharan. Sadly, apart from his initial impact, the mystery spinner faded away. Mendis will be now focusing on coaching, imparting his knowledge to young players.

Mendis who hails from Moratuwa had little formal coaching having not been able to attend St. Sebastian’s or Prince of Wales Colleges due to financial constraints. With his parents being strong Catholics, he should have easily entered St. Sebastian’s, but many are the underprivileged Catholic children who are denied a slot in premier Catholic education institutes like St. Joseph’s, St. Peter’s, St. Benedict’s and De Mazenod as they are unable to meet the exorbitant donations charged  by these schools. These education institutes care less about Jesus’ teachings.

Opportunity denied at St. Sebastains’ s didn’t discourage Mendis.  The Sri Lanka Army came in to his aid. As he finished schooling, he was recruited by the Army’s Artillery Regiment. Mendis joined them as a Gunner. General Sarath Fonseka, who cared deeply for his charges, promoted Mendis twice when he was Army Commander. Currently, Mendis holds the rank of Lieutenant.

Representing the Army in the lower divisions of domestic cricket, Mendis became famous for his wicket taking ability. Single handedly he guided the Army for many titles.

The criterion for national selection is performing in elite domestic tournament or for Sri Lanka ‘A’.  Mendis had none of that as Army was playing in lower divisions.

It was a huge gamble when he was picked to play the Asia Cup. But it worked.

Pakistan hosted the Asia Cup in 2008 and Sri Lanka met India in the finals in Karachi.

Mendis humbled the Indians with figures of six wickets for 13 runs. The likes of Yuvraj Singh, M.S. Dhoni and Virender Sehwag had little clue how to pick his carrom balls.

A few weeks later when India’s Test team toured Sri Lanka, they had all the reasons to believe that they possessed the ammunition to counter Mendis’ mystery. India’s famous middle order called the Fabulous Four comprising Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly hadn’t featured in the Asia Cup.

But Mendis had a field day. He picked up 26 wickets in three matches as Sri Lanka made India eat humble pie. He went onto break Sir Alec Bedser’s World Record, that had stood for more than 50 years, for most wickets in a debut series.

Soon he became a sensation. Teams were more worried in working out Mendis’ carrom ball than Murali’s doosra.

The carrom ball is delivered by flicking the thumb and middle finger. The ball pitched on leg-stump and turned sharply towards the off-stump. Mendis had operated leaving the mid-on free and batsmen perished thinking that they had an easy single on offer. They were either bowled or trapped leg before wicket most of the time. Indians first decoded Mendis mystery. They decided that they were not going to play the on-drive to the carrom ball. Other teams soon followed suit and the mystery was decoded.

With teams tackling his main weapon, Mendis was ineffective.

The fact that he didn’t play in a higher division meant that he didn’t have a base to fall back on, play against better players and sort himself out.

To make things worse, his progress was hampered by a recurring back injury. He made several comebacks, but the effectiveness wasn’t there. Soon, he was finding it difficult to hold onto a place in domestic cricket as well. There was a time that teams picked him for his batting alone.

Mendis will be remembered for the torrid time he gave the Indians. Someone like Sachin Tendulkar, who had tremendous success against the likes of Shane Warne and Murali, struggled against Mendis initially. It took him so much time to sort out Mendis.

Usually it is the fast bowlers who instill fear in batsmen. But Mendis’ carrom ball did so much damage to the reputation of batsmen. He gave coaches headaches, plenty of them.

Many players in recent times have gone onto master the carrom ball. They all owe it to Ajantha Mendis, a player from humble beginnings who challenged the best in the game.

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