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Meet cricket’s new enfant terrible

“The ‘carrom ball’ is the latest invention in bowling since the doosra”

“Mendis’ bowling is like a box of quality chocolates. You never know what you are going to get next, but you can be sure that it is going to be ‘finger flicking’ good.”

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
The three-match one-day international series between Sri Lanka and West Indies was not so much about the Caribbean’s winning it by a 2-0 margin, but the introduction to international cricket of a new spinning phenomenon in the form of 23-year-old Ajantha Mendis.

The series was something of a watershed for Sri Lanka who was looking to building a team for the next World Cup. In the absence of Muthiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando and Farveez Maharoof this was Sri Lanka’s weakest one-day bowling attack for some time for after Chaminda Vaas’s 392 wickets the next best was Tillakaratne Dilshan with 45. Taking this aspect into context, the result was not the key factor but the unearthing of new talent.

With the great Shane Warne having quit the scene two years ago and two of his contemporary spinners Muralitharan and Anil Kumble nearing the end of their illustrious careers, spin it seems was headed for a period of isolation in world cricket as it had been till the early nineties when Warne, Murali and Kumble came into the scene to keep that fine art of slow bowling in the limelight for more than a decade.

But from the moment Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene threw the ball to Mendis in the first ODI at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, a new spin enfant terrible was born to world cricket. In his maiden international appearance Mendis had the cricket world in a spin the way he conjured his deliveries to have the West Indies batsmen flummoxed. Classified as an off-spinner Mendis could bowl five different deliveries in one over which always kept the batsmen guessing what his next one would be. The secret of his success has been his ability to be accurate with every delivery while at the same time displaying variety.

One cricket fan described Mendis’ bowling as “a box of quality chocolates. You never know what you are going to get next, but you can be sure that it is going to be ‘finger flicking’ good.”

Rob Steen on Cricinfo said: “I have just seen the future of spin bowling - and his name is Ajantha Mendis.”
Veteran West Indies cricket writer Tony Becca wrote in the ‘Jamaica Gleaner’: “Mendis bowls everything. With a smile on his face as he caresses the ball before delivering it, he bowls the off-break, he bowls the leg-break, he bowls the googly, he bowls the flipper, he bowls a straight delivery, he bowls them with different grips and different actions, he bowls them with a different trajectory and at a different pace, and he disguises them brilliantly. The result is that he mesmerises, or bamboozles, batsmen.”

Dwayne Bravo, the West Indies all-rounder said: “To be honest, when we saw his stats - after 19 first-class matches, he had 111 wickets at an average of 14.54 - we knew he had to be bowling something good. Ramnaresh Sarwan had problems picking him, and from the time we saw this, most of the batsmen retreated to the dressing room, and had a close look at his hand on the TV monitor.

“I actually went and had a look at his hand on the computer, and it was still really difficult to pick him, but I found that once you are prepared to watch the ball closely, it is half the job done. He is a very good bowler, and we will have to go back to [the] drawing board to try to come up with a way to score off his bowling freely.”

Jerome Jayaratne, the Sri Lanka Cricket Academy coach described his bowling as: “Mendis is unusual, freaky and has developed a ball which could be described as a ‘flicker’, which he releases with a snap of his fingers, which is very unusual compared to other orthodox spin bowlers.”

The ball Mendis bowls with a flick of his finger is reminiscent of former Australian spinner Johnny Gleeson who had a similar delivery.

The delivery has been coined the term ‘Carrom Ball’ by Sri Lankan cricket enthusiast and connoisseur Mahendra Mapagunaratne living in Toronto, Canada because Mendis flicks his finger as would a carrom player flick a disc on a carrom board. The Carrom Ball is the latest invention in bowling since the doosra.

For all the adulation he received in his brief introduction to international career these are early days for Mendis who has still quite a long way to go before he can be spoken of as Murali’s successor. But the excitement he created with his first three wickets in international cricket – Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy and Jerome Taylor was more than enough for scribes to start comparing him with other spin bowling ‘greats’. This has happened to many young cricketers in the past who had failed to live upto the expectations. One hopes Mendis fulfils the aspirations and proves a worthy successor to Muralitharan when the legend finally quits the scene.

Mendis’ selection to the Sri Lanka one-day team hardly raised an eyebrow. He had completed a successful second season of first-class cricket with Sri Lanka Army SC finishing on top of the national bowling averages with a haul of 68 wickets at an impressive average of 10.51 and a strike rate of 28.8 balls per wicket. Thanks largely to Mendis, Army SC emerged champions of Premier Tier B.

As Army SC was playing in a lower tier, they did not get the same attention as the clubs in the more prestigious Tier A. Week after week Mendis kept on taking a haul of wickets but his name hardly figured in the headlines, not until Army SC won the title and qualified for promotion to Tier A next season.

Mendis’s one-time coach at the Sri Lanka Army, Saman Hewavitharana under whose watchful eyes Mendis developed into a spinner of repute described him as a ‘spin mix bowler’ because he bowls so many different deliveries in one over.

“When he joined the Army he had only the off-break and leg-break,” said Hewavitharana. “But on his own he started developing other deliveries at practice. All credit should go to him for the types of deliveries he bowls. He developed them all on his own by experimenting at practice.”

“All what we did with Mendis is that we polished his bowling action and fine tuned him. I have videoed his bowling and whenever he finds that he is not bowling with his usual rhythm, I show him where he is going wrong. That way Mendis has corrected his faults and turned into a match-winning bowler,” Hewavitharana said.

Hewavitharana predicts Mendis would turn out to be a better bowler than Muralitharan and a better all-rounder than Chaminda Vaas.

“When Muralitharan broke into international cricket he had only the off-spin and top-spin. Mendis has five varieties,” Hewavitharana pointed out.

“The secret of Mendis’ success is his strong fingers with which he grips and flicks the ball. He is also not overawed by the big names in the game which is a plus factor. I am sure he will make a greater impression in Test cricket where he will be able to get a lot of wickets through bat-pad catches. Few people realise Mendis’s capabilities as a batsman. He bats at number 3 or 4 for the Army and Sri Lanka can utilise him as an all-rounder in the team,” Hewavitharana said.

Mendis was a ‘nobody’ at Kadalana St Anthony’s Vidyalaya where cricket was a nonentity. He was actually discovered and brought to Moratu Maha Vidyalaya by Lucky Rogers Fernando, an outstanding school cricketer in the Duleep Mendis mould. Mendis proved an instance success winning the Best Bowler’s prize for two consecutive years (2002 and 2003) in the traditional ‘Big Match’ against Sri Sumangala College, Panadura.

“I joined the Army to play cricket,” said Mendis whose late father was a member of the Catamarans SC and played cricket. Mendis said that he has been inspired by watching Muralitharan bowl.

“I learnt to bowl the top spin and the flipper while I was at the Spin Academy under Ruwan Kalpage (former Sri Lanka spin bowling coach). “I am now working on the doosra,” admitted Mendis a Private in the Army.

Elite Colombo clubs have intensely campaigned to get Mendis into their set-up, but according to Hewavitharana there are certain procedures in the Army that make it difficult for anyone to leave it so quickly. Anyone joining the Army has to sign a bond and in Mendis’s case it is for 12 years from 2003.

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Next World Champs from Astra school cricket tournament?

Rumesh Buddika (captain) on right and Denuwan Maduranga (vice-capt.) of Mahinda College, Galle U-17 cricket team, winners of the U-17 Div. 1 Astra Cup championship 2007 with the trophy. Behind (right) is Sanath Jayasuriya chief guest at the awards ceremony

The Astra school cricket tournament organised by Unilever Sri Lanka’s leading spreads brand Astra, in collaboration with the Sri Lanka School Cricket Association, was held at the BMICH recently, under the auspices of Chief Guest, cricketing legend Sanath Jayasuriya.

One of the most coveted tournaments for young aspiring cricketers for the past ten years, the awards ceremony was an energetic occasion which saw Wesley College Borella emerge Under 13 champions, while St Peter’s College Bambalapitiya were triumphant in the Under 15 age group and Mahinda College, Galle were overall champions in the Under 17 category.
This year’s tournament was conducted under the theme ‘Heartening future world champions’ with the motto ‘You are the next world champion’.

Miss Ganga Hewage, Assistant Brand Manager for Astra at Unilever Sri Lanka said: “Cricket is hugely popular in Sri Lanka and we at Astra recognised that we had an ideal opportunity to build a platform that would set these youngsters on the right track by developing their personalities, attitudes and values so as to build a solid foundation for their future growth as individuals. This awards ceremony is a very special occasion since it is the time that the hard work of our talented young cricketers is acknowledged and rewarded. They are able to shine above all others and make their parents proud – we would like to congratulate each and every one of them for their indomitable spirit, their talent and their dedication. We also thank the Sri Lanka School Cricket Association for their continued support and cooperation.”

The tournament has been credited for drawing outstation schools to showcase their talents with competitive performances. In 2007, the tournament was held under three categories, under 13, under 15 and under 17. The attraction of the tournament to junior cricket was commended by national cricket heroes like Aravinda de Silva who said: “The junior cricket stage is very important in a cricketer’s career. I got my exposure at this level and from there I launched my international career.”
President of the Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association BA Abeyratne spoke about the decade long partnership they have enjoyed with the brand Astra.

The Astra schools cricket tournament has spawned some of the finest young cricketers of the past ten years, including 14 of the 15 member World Cup cricket squad. The tournament provides a platform for young cricketers to develop the skills needed for a successful international career in the sport, and also nurtures in them the values and temperament to grow into exemplary individuals and role models as national sportsmen.

Captain of the Under 13 Wesley team Ashail Thikash Kariyawasam had this to say: “Astra cricket cup is a great chance for cricketers like us to go forward in what we are good at.” His coach Shafraz Farook also thanked Unilever Sri Lanka and offered his opinion. He said that “four to five players will be representing Sri Lanka in the future and that by sponsoring events of this nature Astra has motivated the cricketers to make their schools proud and the country.”

Denem Perera, captain of the Under 15 St Peter’s team said: “Astra cricket cup is a good stepping stone for young cricketers like us,” while his proud mother Mrs. Perera said: “Astra cricket cup is a great encouragement for youngsters especially an event of this sort to look forward to. After doing all the hard work, it’s rewarding. It helps the youngsters prepare and mould for better and competitive cricket in the future.”

Captain of the Under 17 Mahinda team Rumesh Buddhika expressed his appreciation for the encouragement he has received. “I want to make my school proud and play for the national team one day, and I’m grateful to my coach, master in charge, principal and teachers for supporting me all the way,” he said.

In addition to hosting the launching pad for tomorrow’s cricket heroes, Astra will also conduct nutrition programs for all students participating and involved in the games. The workshops conducted by the reputed brand are attended not just by students but also principals, teachers and cricket coaches, drawing all facilitators of education to contribute to the holistic development of the child.

This year’s Astra schools cricket tournament will once again see the Unilever brand at the forefront of a quest, this time to draw out the next world champions in cricket from the youth of Sri Lanka.

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Pasqual to quit SLC

Sudath Pasqual, Sri Lanka Cricket’s (SLC) tournament, provincial cricket and women’s cricket manager will quit his post shortly to migrate to Canada with his family.

Pasqual, 46, has been with SLC for the past five years and held the posts of co-ordinator umpires and manager umpires and tournaments before being promoted to his present post.

An outstanding schoolboy cricketer he went onto represent his country even before he captained his school Royal College.
In 1979, a year before he led Royal, Pasqual, a hard hitting left-hand bat and right-arm medium-pace bowler was picked to play for Sri Lanka in the 1979 World Cup in England. At 17 years he became the youngest cricketer to play in a World Cup when he made his debut against New Zealand at Trent Bridge.

However studies cut short his career as a cricketer when he migrated to USA in 1982 to obtain a Masters in Political Science dealing especially with international relationship. But cricket being his first love Pasqual continued to pursue the sport playing in the California League.

Having completed his studies Pasqual returned to Sri Lanka in 1997 and got involved in streamlining Sri Lanka cricket administration. Pasqual is migrating to Canada to enhance the studies of his two daughters aged 8 and 3. – [ST]

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