When Mahela Jayawardene was asked if he could read the bowling of off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, he cracks a smug grin.
Mendis gives the game a new spin
When Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lanka captain, was asked if he could read the bowling of his champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, he cracks a smug grin. "We can read him," he says of the man who has now taken 1,207 wickets at international level. "We have all faced him enough in the nets."
Ask him if he can pick Ajantha Mendis, the 23-year-old newcomer, and Jayawardene is not quite convincing. He shifts uneasily in his seat and says: "Mmm, well, I can pick two of his deliveries - but I still miss a couple every so often." If his own captain struggles to guess what he is cooking up, what chance have the opposition batsman when Mendis lets the red cherry fly? He is cricket's new mystery spinner, and his obscure background only adds to the mystique. He hails from Moratuwa - a town just south of the capital Colombo and famed for producing furniture and rubber products, as well as the Sri Lankan greats Duleep Mendis and Romesh Kaluwitharana.
His rise from the humble coastal town has been startlingly swift. This time last year he was turning out for the army cricket team, in the second tier of Sri Lanka's domestic competition. His statistics at that level are remarkable enough - in just 19 first-class matches he has taken 111 wickets at an average of 14.5. Yet that rung of cricket on the Teardrop Isle warrants very little exposure, and he was only really noticed when he turned up as a net bowler for the Sri Lankan international squad.
They liked what they saw, and this year he was invited to join them on their tour of the West Indies where he continued to impress. "He's a confident bowler," says Jayawardene. "Even though he hasn't played much cricket, he knows what he is doing. "He is helped by the people he has got around him - Murali, Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekara. The way they build up pressure, he just has to bowl straight and the batsmen have to take a few chances."
Bowl straight is the first part of his method. After that, the uncanny deviations off the pitch bewitch the batsman. Shoaib Malik, Pakistan's in-form captain, was totally bamboozled by Mendis's leg-break on Sunday evening, while, earlier in the Asia Cup, he snared five of the UAE's batsmen. "We didn't look in trouble against most of their bowlers, and then Mendis came on and he changed the game," admits the UAE captain Saqib Ali. "He is a very good bowler."
While his peers have a "doosra" (second) delivery to their repertoire, Mendis has six different modes of propelling the ball - although two are being fine-tuned before they are unleashed on the international staged. His method for one of his deliveries - where he spins it off the folded second figure of his right hand - is original. This delivery has been tentatively termed the "carrom", as it probably finds its origins in the board-game of the same name, which is played widely in Sri Lanka.
The game is played on a square board of lacquered plywood, where players aim to flick disks into four corner pockets in a manner similar to pool or snooker. With Muralitharan nearing the end of his illustrious playing days, Sri Lanka were starting to scour around nervously for a replacement. The emergence of Mendis has given them hope. "He is just like Murali - he is a freakish guy," adds Jayawardene. "I can read two of the balls he bowls out of the four variations he is using now.
"When this guy came in he had six different deliveries. Now we have asked him to cut it down to four, because he doesn't have enough control with the other two. "We have asked him to just use four till he gets full control of them. I can read him most of the time, but there are still a couple I miss every so often." @Email:email@example.com