Moratuwa has produced some of Sri Lankan cricket’s brightest talents – Duleep Mendis, Kusal Mendis, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Ajantha Mendis to name a few. Locals say that Moratuwa is famous for ABC – Arrack, Baila, and cricket. Basically, the Moartuwites are entertainers and fittingly, Mendis has given the local fans plenty of entertainment over the years.
Even while playing sports in the garden, the small brother takes immense pride in beating the elder sibling. It’s the same in all scales of sport. Everton loves beating Manchester United. Chicago Bulls take pleasure in beating Los Angeles Lakers and there’s no better sight for the Sri Lankans than overcoming India on the cricketing field. The last time Sri Lanka had the wood over the Indians was when Mendis was at his peak.
Much like Jack Iverson and John Gleeson, Mendis stunned the cricketing world with his mystery. He could bowl a mixture of off-breaks, top spinners and googlies accurately. But the one that made him deadly was the ‘carrom ball’. Released by flicking the ball between the thumb and a bent middle finger, the ‘carrom ball’ troubled some of the world’s famous batting line-ups.
There was a hue and cry back at home when Mahela Jayawardene and Trevor Bayliss rooted for this unknown spinner for their Asia Cup campaign in 2008. Top Sri Lankan batsmen had never come across Mendis is domestic cricket as he played in a lower division representing the Sri Lanka Army.
There is a very good chance of precious talent going down the drain in Sri Lanka. Moratuwa has two leading schools that nurture cricketing talents – St Sebastian’s and Prince of Wales. Mendis could attend neither as his family couldn’t afford the exorbitant donations that both schools demand. St Sebastian’s much like other Catholic schools in the country like St Joseph’s, St Benedict’s, St Peter’s and St Anthony’s, was built by French and Italian missionaries to educate to Catholic children. Right now these schools accommodate non-Christians charging exorbitant rates while turning down Catholic children. Mendis was yet another victim of the Catholic church’s lack of priorities.
When his father, the sole breadwinner of the house passed away after a brief illness, Mendis had to keep the home fire burning. His cricketing skills were not good enough for him to earn a slot in any of Colombo’s premier first-class clubs. But there was an opening at Sri Lanka Army. He joined the Artillery regiment as a Gunner. In inter-regiment cricket, he had quite an impact.
During Sri Lanka’s practices, the batsmen found out that they were having some difficulty in picking Mendis, particularly his carrom ball. When the idea of taking him to a tour of West Indies just before the Asia Cup in Pakistan was first put through to the selectors, they dismissed it. They wanted him to come through the system, prove himself in first-class cricket before being recognised for selection at the top level. But Jayawardene and Bayliss convinced the selectors and were given the go-ahead. The rest, as they say, is history.
A target of 274 in the Asia Cup final on a flat deck in Lahore would have been child’s play for India’s famed batting line-up. But Mendis’ carrom balls stunned MS Dhoni’s side, who suffered a 100 run defeat.
A few weeks later, India were touring Sri Lanka for a Test series. The challenge for the hosts was sterner because they had not come across the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly in the Asia Cup final. Mendis overcame that challenge too claiming 26 wickets in the series. The most by a debutant in a Test series breaking a record held by Sir Alex Bedser for over half a century. That happens to be Sri Lanka’s last bilateral series win over India.
To the Indian batsmen’s credit, they worked on how to tackle Mendis. For the next tour, two years later, they arrived in Sri Lanka with a few tricks up their sleeve. The key was not to play the on-drive for the carrom ball. Sri Lanka had kept the mid-on open, tempting batsmen for the easy single but against the carrom ball, that turned from leg to off-stump with considerable bounce, it was a high-risk shot. Once India didn’t take that bait, half the battle was won and then it was a case of wearing down Mendis and cashing in. India never lost a series afterward. Soon the other teams took note. The mystery was decoded and Mendis was no longer a threat.
With Sri Lanka’s first-class cricket being weak, there was no chance for Mendis to go back to the drawing board and work his way up again. He had relied heavily on the carrom ball for his wickets and once teams figured out how to counter that, he was half the bowler he used to be. A lack of stock ball hurt him dearly. He probably didn’t make an effort to put in hours of training like a Muttiah Muralitharan to master a stock ball. Soon he was finding it tough to hold onto a place in domestic cricket as well and in recent times played as a batsman.
Mendis finishes with impressive figures though. He has taken 152 ODI wickets at an average of 21 and 66 wickets in T20 Internationals at an average of 14. With chances of making a comeback all but gone, he has decided to call it a day at 34. He will be remembered as the man who humbled India’s famous batting line-up.
There are lessons to be learnt in Mendis' retirement. The authorities need to do more to nurture players who go out of the senior side and struggle to find their feet. When there is no National Cricket Academy or constant exposure through ‘A’ team cricket like found in India and Australia, players in Sri Lanka can be lost in double-quick time. It's time to react before the country loses another talent.