Lakshan Sandakan

Sandakan had only featured in four Tests since his debut more than 12 months back because the general impression was that he bowled too many loose deliveries. © AFP

On his Test debut, at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium, Lakshan Sandakan finished with match figures of 7 for 107, playing as crucial a role as Kusal Mendis (176) and Rangana Herath (9 for 103) in Sri Lanka rallying outstandingly from being shot out for 117 by Australia on the first afternoon to completing a dramatic 106-run victory.

At the end of that game, when he was asked if the Australian batsmen had been able to pick him, he replied, “They had no idea.”

India’s batsmen had a little more of an idea of what the left-arm wrist spinner was doing, but even they, as accomplished players of the turning ball as they are, were put through a serious examination on day one of the third Test on Saturday (August 12). At the same venue where he befuddled the Aussies, Sandakan ended the evening with 2 for 84 from 25 overs, the numbers hardly conveying the hold he had over at least a couple of batsmen – Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.

Sandakan had only featured in four Tests since his debut more than 12 months back because the general impression was that he bowled too many loose deliveries. There were a fair few juicy offerings on Saturday, but that is to be expected of someone who is practising the rarest of rare crafts – left-arm wrist spin. But when he did land the ball on a spot, as he gradually began to do the deeper one got into the day’s play, he was more than a handful, even for a set batsman like Shikhar Dhawan.

“He was turning the ball and that’s why I was playing him more cautiously rather than being over-aggressive,” said Dhawan, who made 119 off just 123 deliveries, but who only struck four of his 17 boundaries off the chinaman bowler.

It was his working over of Pujara, easily the best batsman of spin in this Indian line-up, and Rahane that stood out. Neither could read him off the hand with any certainty, and while the relative slowness of the surface allowed them to play him off the track, it wasn’t with any great conviction or confidence. And naturally free-scoring batsmen like Dhawan, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli too were forced to play him with care and caution, because he was getting the ball to go a distance, and he was able to turn the ball both ways without too much change in his action.

One of the issues with mystery bowlers, they say, is that when the mystery goes away, they become very predictable and everyday. Sandakan is a novelty, much like Kuldeep Yadav is, but he isn’t mysterious when you begin to understand what he is doing with the ball. His USP lies in the amount of turn he can extract from any surface – just like a right-arm legspinner would do – and the additional bounce that a wrist spinner will always get when compared to a finger spinner.

This was India’s first sighting of Sandakan in an international fixture, and even though they have had reasonable exposure now to Kuldeep in the nets, to play a left-arm wrist spinner in a match isn’t quite the same as batting against your teammate at practice. To add to it, no two chinaman bowlers are the same, just as two right-arm leggies aren’t, so it took the in-form, quality Indian top order quite a bit of time to figure out what he was doing. When they did, because he was getting the amount of turn he was, the aim was to turn the strike over and look elsewhere for the boundary options.

Sandakan caught the edge of Rahul’s blade in the first over after lunch – the batsman was already on 67 – but the ball flew past a startled Angelo Mathews at slip. He pushed Dhawan back and kept him on his toes, and his hold over Kohli was such that the Indian captain only managed 12 runs off 28 deliveries faced, before falling to the same bowler driving away from his body to a fullish delivery that he only managed to edge to slip.

Long before that, he had put Pujara out of his misery by having him also caught at slip but on the cut as the batsman failed to read the wrong ‘un and made so much room that he had to eventually reach out for the ball.

Dhawan, who perhaps played Sandakan with the most composure, if not authority, of the Indian batsmen, said he had gotten more and more comfortable with more time studying the bowler from up close. “He is very nice,” Dhawan noted, generously. “He was turning the ball, one odd ball was turning a lot. It’s hard to pick his googly also. Especially once we (himself and Rahul) got out, the way he came back and bowled, it was nice for them.

“It was hard for me to pick his googly for one or two times because I haven’t played him. It was my first time. But after I was set and once I saw him, then I knew what he was doing, I could pick his googly,” he went on. “His googly comes a bit slower than his normal delivery, so when you spend time, you realise these things and you work according to that.”

More and more teams will work these things out, but that will also force Sandakan and those of his ilk to improve their craft and add to their repertoire. Ravindra Jadeja’s suspension has allowed India to unfurl one of their own left-arm wrist spinners in this Test, and it will be interesting to see how Kuldeep goes against Sri Lanka. Coincidentally, Kuldeep’s debut also was against Australia, and he too could have said of the Aussies after his Dharamsala heroics, “They had no idea.”

This Test marks the first time since January 2004 that both sides have one left-arm wrist spinner each in their XIs. Between them, Paul Adams and Dave Mohammed had a completely forgettable outing in the drawn Cape Town Test between South Africa and West Indies, returning combined match figures of 3 for 315 from 80 overs. It is unlikely that Sandakan and Kuldeep will reprise that effort, as the next few days will surely corroborate.