No country has in recent times produced more original cricketers than Sri Lanka. Sanath Jayasuriya, Lasinth Malinga, Murali and Ajantha Mendis stand out as the most unorthodox players of their generation. In that time, Sri Lanka has endured a civil war, reporters have been eliminated, the defeated presidential candidate languishes in jail, and the cricket community has for 15 years been run by interim committees. Maybe chaos can be liberating, maybe organisation can stifle.
Murali's freakish style has been admired and debated but not copied. Like Thommo, he has been inimitable. In his youth, he turned the ball prodigiously but latterly he relied as much upon disguise. Jayasuriya was the first of the modern breed of blasting openers; he struck the ball with awesome power. Malinga is a round-armer, a bunch long assumed to be extinct who ruled the roost briefly between the underarmers and overarmers.
No one told these blokes they could not play like that. Instead they rose by their own lights. Instinct was their starting point, and more importantly their coaches' as well, but they did not rest on it. Murali added his doosra. Malinga practised his yorkers and slower balls. Jayasuriya kept his game intact but learnt to pick his moments.
Now comes the fourth of the originals, Mendis, a flicker of the ball to put beside Jack Iverson, John Gleeson and Sonny Ramadhin. Some of these fellows had never clapped eyes on carrom, a recreation popular in the subcontinent that requires participants to flick counters across a board, but they released the ball in that style, propelling it with a bent middle finger, pushing it out from the hand, and relying on other digits to determine degree and direction of spin.
None of these tweakers were easily picked. Ramadhin mystified the Poms, and was checked only when Peter May and Colin Cowdrey stopped trying to unravel him and instead thrust their legs at every ball. Under the abysmal rules of the day, any delivery pitched outside off stump could be padded away. Gleeson bemused the Poms until eventually they found a way to keep him out, mostly by treating him as an off-spinner. Iverson only emerged late in his career, and was defeated more by the clock.
Mendis is as good as any of them. His story is easily told: a promising lad observed bowling odd things for a youth side, taken to the police club and left to his own devices by a coach impressed with his variations, and content merely to film his action when he was in form and to show his charge the footage whenever he was struggling. Before that his school coach, Lucky Peters, had taken him from a non-cricketing primary school to his own establishment in Colombo. Evidently, Lankan cricket is held together by open-minded enthusiasts able to spot exceptional talent at 80 paces. Perhaps there is method in the madness.
Mendis's entry into the public arena was also well managed by captain Kumar Sangakkara. He has spoken out against the cronyism, corruption and interference he has come across in Lankan cricket. Unless the position improves, the next Mendis might not be so lucky.
Mendis was not rushed into the Test team. Instead he played a few one-dayers, and then was deemed ready to face India. It was an auspicious debut. Apart from Virender Sehwag, none of the Indians could make anything of him. Afterwards one distinguished batsman admitted, ''At first we could not pick him, and then we could not play him. He kept bowling these leg-cutters.''
India's suspicion of the decision review system began in that series. Of course it's nonsense. Ball tracking depends for its accuracy upon the number of pictures taken per second. Channel Nine's cameras take five times more pictures a second than the cheaper versions used elsewhere and so have greater accuracy.
In bygone years, Mendis might have remained a mystery for a decade. Instead it was his fate to be subjected to relentless examination. Moreover he was tossed into IPL and county cricket, and batsmen became used to his wiles. Along the way he copped an awful lot of hidings. Now his career hangs in the balance.
He is still a threat. It's one thing to watch a bowler on a screen, another to face him in a Test. Mendis has fooled Shaun Marsh and others before now, and the new brigade will need to be on guard. If nothing else, his return will make things interesting, and that on a patch of land once owned by Murali.