Will anyone come close to achieving what Kumar Sangakkara has at the No.3 position for Sri Lanka?
There are 26,634 reasons to think not, but some, including Sangakkara himself, believe that there is a young batsman of precocious talent who could. Kusal Mendis is the man, and he has been one of Sri Lanka’s finest finds in increasingly distressing times.
Mendis has offered Sri Lanka a glimmer of hope so often in the last one year, you were forced to wonder what Sri Lanka would do without him, or when he goes through a lean patch.
Now, we have the answer. With Mendis scoring 36, 19, 1, and 1 in the last four One-Day Internationals against India, Sri Lanka are down 4-0 in a five-match series.
Not that his century in the Test series against India helped Sri Lanka win in Colombo, but that was the only moment in the series that the hosts looked like they could have gotten the better of India. That was one show of the famous Sri Lankan spirit, and the crowds loved Mendis for that.
The 176 against Australia in a Test at Pallekele in 2016 is what started the adulation. Back to back half-centuries on the same tour in the ODIs built on it. The 194 against Bangladesh in the Galle Test earlier this year helped it along. The 102 against the same opposition in an ODI at Dambulla added to it. The innings against India cemented it.
Even in these ODIs, each time he has walked out to bat, hope swells in the stands. The papare bands get louder, spectators are on their toes trying to catch a glimpse of their new hero, the dancers on the stage behind the ropes bring out their best routine… it almost feels like Mendis has the power to bring Sri Lanka to life. Only, he has not been able to so far.
A part of the reason could be that since making his international debut in a Test against West Indies (now Windies) at the P Sara Oval in 2015, Mendis has played 20 Tests, 37 ODIs, and eight T20Is. That is a heavy load for a 22-year-old to carry, especially when the hopes of a tiny nation are also placed on those delicate shoulders.
“We feel that he is mentally drained,” felt Avishka Gunawardene, Sri Lanka’s batting coach, when asked about Mendis’s dry run with the bat. “It has nothing to do with any technical things.”
The former Sri Lankan batsman is only half-right in this regard.
In the first ODI, Mendis premeditated a dance down the track only to york himself to a full and fast delivery from Axar Patel. In the next game he fell playing the sweep, no surprises there, to Yuzvendra Chahal. He picked the wrong length and was smacked on his pads in front of the stumps. His review of the umpire’s decision only confirmed what the Indians already knew.
At Pallekele, in the third ODI, he threw his bat at a short of length delivery outside the off-stump and nicked it to a diving Rohit Sharma. Had he stood still, he may have added a boundary to his name, but the initial movement was away from the stumps, so he could only reach so far.
In the previous game, it was not his tendency to premeditate that cost him, it was the lack of patience and a brilliant throw. Dilshan Munaweera, the debutant, bunted the ball in front of point, but before he could turn down the run – there was never a single there – Mendis was more than half-way down the track. KL Rahul collected the ball coolly, took a couple of strides, and uprooted the stump with a rocket throw. Mendis was about a foot short of the crease.
Four errors in a row, out of which three were poor shots. Luck, or even the lack of it, had little to do with that.
“It is better to give him a break before the next tour rather than keep playing him throughout,” said Gunawardene.
Sri Lanka next travel to the United Arab Emirates to take on Pakistan in October for a three-Test and five-ODI series followed by two Twenty20 Internationals.
“Personally, someone who is young like that should be playing the longer version of the game and ODI cricket. I would rather keep him out of T20 cricket. He is still a player who is developing. Obviously, we are looking at the next so many years from him,” suggested Gunawardene.
Of late, Sri Lanka do not have a grip on most things cricket, so one can only imagine how they go about handling Mendis. But caring for this young man could see him turn into a fine cricketer. Maybe even a fine captain in the future.