Ajantha Mendis from mystery bowler to retired recluse | Sunday Observer

Ajantha Mendis from mystery bowler to retired recluse

1 September, 2019

For four years, cricket’s best known mystery bowler Ajantha Mendis lived a life of secrecy, a virtual recluse until he dropped an announcement this week almost from the blues that he called it a day bringing to an end one of the most tantalizing sporting careers.

Mendis hit the scene from almost nowhere, bamboozled batsmen with his deceptively freakish bowling in a way cricket had not experienced before and then disappeared into oblivion after sporting the Sri Lanka colours for the last time in 2015.

But to the experts there was nothing strange in Mendis’ absence from the scene followed by his subsequent re-emergence to retire after a physical back strain rendered him a spent force.

“Ajantha Mendis had a back problem. He was the kind of bowler who needed his entire body to work the ball and he lost that zip once that mystery he brought into the game came to light,” said Roshan Abeysinghe who was Mendis’ first and only big stage manager.

According to Abeysinghe, Mendis in the end was a victim of his own progress having bowled a variety of wicket-taking balls one of which was the venomous ‘carom ball’ flicked off his thumb and middle finger at a time when batsmen had to wait for the day when bowler-analyzing technology came to their rescue.

Unlike most present day cricketers who benefit from academic training and expert mentoring, Mendis was a self-taught bowler who beat the likes of England’s Steuart Broad, South Africa’s Morne Morkel and India’s Ishant Sharma to become the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Emerging Player of the Year in 2008.

His talents first came to light when he left his little known school St. Anthony’s College in downtown Moratuwa and enrolled at the nearby Moratu Vidyalaya to play junior cricket as a 13-year old novice.

Mendis soon began to blossom at senior school cricket until talent scouts from the Army spotted him and offered him employment with the rank of a Gunner that he could not refuse after he lost his father who was the sole bread-winner in a family of five siblings. There was no looking back for the young soldier who shot up to the rank of a Second Lieutenant following his exploits in the Asia Cup when he bowled Sri Lanka to victory over a star-studded India team in the final at Karachi taking six wickets for 13 runs in 2008.

One of his victims was Yuvraj Singh who was unable to figure out how the ball beat his bat and slammed into his stumps despite playing a copybook forward defence.

No wonder that Mendis set himself up to become the fastest to take 50 ODI wickets in only 19 matches and had one of the most astonishing Test cricket beginnings when he captured eight wickets on debut against India at the SSC ground in Colombo.

The feat spurred him to go past an age old world record by grabbing 26 wickets in his first Test series that moved him ahead of Englishman Alec Bedser who had 22 wickets in a three-Test debut. Stunningly, Mendis’ first wicket came by courtesy of his carrom ball when he scalped Indian batsman Rahul Dravid whose off stump was shifted by the delivery and only a mysterious player like him could have settled into a Sri Lanka team which at the time was streets ahead of the present players with the likes of the legendary Muttiah Muralideran going great guns.

At least five leading corporate companies in Sri Lanka jostled to get mileage off Mendis and across the Palk Straits in India he was snapped up for 700,000 US dollars at the Premier League auction in 2013 after he became the first bowler to take six wickets in a T20 match against Australia in 2011.

Few international sportsmen can be marvellous and absolutely mystifying while at the same time be that unassuming hero. Ajantha Mendis was one of them. He shot to fame from almost nowhere, played his part as a Sri Lankan match-winning spin bowler in all his grace and humility.

He did not have the fortune of a lavish retirement but Mendis bowed out a player who demanded nothing but reached iconic sporting immortality.