LONDON // When Sri Lanka met Pakistan in a low-key series in Abu Dhabi a few weeks after reaching the 2007 World Cup final, they brought with them a young man who was supposed to be the future of spin-bowling. Muttiah Muralitharan, the champion off-spinner, was said to be nearing the end of his glittering career, but not to worry. Here came Malinga Bandara instead, a leg-break bowler who would become the next in the bloodline of Sri Lankan spinning greats.
Shahid Afridi soon scotched that idea. Cheered on by his adoring Pathan supporters, Afridi went boom-boom, and took Bandara for 32 from one over at the Zayed Stadium. It was the second highest score from one set of six deliveries, following on from Herschelle Gibbs's 36 weeks earlier, and Bandara has been rarely spotted since. Suddenly the outlook did not look so rosy. Sri Lanka had reached the top of the game largely on the strengths of having a match-winning spinner, and his clock was ticking.
The following year, a young man who had been playing his cricket in the second tier of Colombo competition for the Sri Lanka Army turned up to bowl at them in the nets. The impression Ajantha Mendis made on them at that net session was nothing in comparison to the one the mystery spinner was about to make on the global game. According to his captain, Kumar Sangakkara, the 24-year-old from Moratuwa can already be considered a great in all three forms of the game with merely a year of international cricket behind him.
"He has done enough to now be called a great spinner in the Twenty20 format," said Sangakkara. "He is already a great spinner in every other format. "He has been an absolute charm for us, the way he has bowled in the middle overs, and even in the first six overs." In Twenty20 cricket, an economy rate of about six per over is regarded as the benchmark for bowlers. Mendis has been going at under five so far at this competition.
Pakistan's batsmen have already had experience against Mendis, in Test matches last year, and Sangakkara added: "Pakistan will be watching him. "They don't really get after him that much because they know if they make one mistake here or there they can get out. "Mendis has been very creative this whole tour." Even Afridi, the famously free-spirited batsmen, may have to be watchful. "Afridi is the kind of guy who can take the game away from you in a few overs, but we can't really get caught up in just one player," said Sangakkara.
"We will discuss a few plans for him and discuss how we can get him out early, or if he stays for a while how to minimise the damage." Younus Khan, the Pakistan captain, believes it will be to his side's advantage if the Sri Lankans focus all their attention on the in-form Afridi. "Everybody knows about us. If we play to our potential we can beat any team, that is why we are in the final." @Email:email@example.com