20 September 2012 - 12:28pm IST
by Anand Vasu in Hambantota
When Ajantha Mendis was on the way to setting a world record – registering figures of 4-2-8-6 that would have pleased fans of even numbers – as Sri Lanka routed Zimbabwe by 82 runs in the opening match of the ICC World Twenty20 2012, the hero of the day didn’t even want to be there.
Mendis, who Mahela Jayawardena affectionately refers to as Mendo, is usually found at the St. Anthony’s church in Kochchikade, not 10 minutes from the R Premadasa Stadium in Khettarama, on Tuesdays. While his attachment to the church is unquestioned, the reason attributed to it might well be apocryphal. Mendis arrived in the big league with figures of six for 13 against India at the Asia Cup in 2008, and the figures coincide exactly with the date of the annual Feast of St Anthony: June 13.
On this Tuesday (September 18) though, Mendis was returning to international cricket after an enforced absence of nearly nine months, no thanks to a back injury that needed to be properly sorted out.Mendis’s rise to fame is well documented, and the manner in which he tormented an Indian batting line-up famed for its ability to play spin, is still the stuff of folklore. Mendis was compared to Jack Iverson, the original mystery spinner from Australia, who came from nowhere to take 21 wickets from five Tests at an average of 15.23 in 1950-51 before disappearing back to obscurity.
As batting line-ups seem to have sorted Mendis out, he has made his latest comeback a strong one. Speaking to the army man is far from easy, as his approach to words is not dissimilar to his bowling. Mendis dislikes extravagance, and answers every question with the fewest words possible: you only need to turn it a few inches to miss the centre of the bat and take the edge.
“I was really sad that I could not play,” said Mendis soon after he returned to active duty. “I think, God might have looked on me kindly when I made my comeback and helped me perform as I did.”
Jayawardena, Sri Lanka’s captain, is an unabashed fan of Mendis, and revealed the other day that he was keen to ensure that he was fully fit before he was brought back to international cricket. While that has turned out to be a wise move, it was not easy for Mendis to sit on the sidelines watching others do the job.
“I didn’t even touch a ball for a long period,” said Mendis. “I only started playing in the last couple of months. But I did lot of other training and used the time to watch videos, and analyse things.”
The unsolved mystery about Mendis is not his multiple clever variations, but the fact that none of the cricket scouts in Moratuwa, the Colombo suburb that he is from, recruited the wiry lad for either of the two big school teams of the area. St Sebastian, which has produced cricketers like Duleep Mendis, Romesh Kaluwitharana and more recently Prasanna Jayawardena, and the Prince of Wales, whose alumni include Amal Silva and Lahiru Thirimanne, ignored Mendis.
Moratuwa is much loved for being representative of the ABCD of Sri Lanka: Arrack, Baila, Cricket and Dance. While there’s no evidence of Mendis (coincidentally the name of a premium arrack brand) excelling at three of these four, cricket has certainly put him on the map. Baila, the soundtrack of the island, has already adapted its pantheon to include Mendis’s deeds, much like calypso songs for the cricketers of the Caribbean.
When Mendis last played in Australia, it was put to him that he was prone to injuries because of the positions he got himself into while bowling his off-spin. He has since changed that, and has managed to be as effective with a slightly different bio-mechanical approach. “I hope I don’t face the same sequence of events again, which meant that I was out of cricket for months and just had to watch Sri Lanka on TV,” said Mendis. “I can play for a longer period from here onwards.”
While he’s been guided by some of the wisest cricket brains in the country, and had access to quality medical treatment and sensible coaching in his most difficult times, Mendis credits two sources of strength for his renaissance. “I do believe that God gives us everything. I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and draw strength from my religion.“I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and on God’s wishes,” said Mendis, who does not omit to mention a more tangible pillar of support. “When I was out of cricket, Yoshini, my wife, helped me overcome some tough times.”
Sri Lanka’s opposition now have one more reason to dislike Sanath Jayasuriya, for it was he who introduced Mendis to Yoshini, the daughter of a senior police official, on the sidelines of a match. With Yoshini and God on his side, what can stop Mendo from tormenting batsmen for years to come?