Ajantha Mendis: mystery spinner

What is at the heart of a great story? Narrative and character are usually a good place to start. A storyline, perhaps, that weaves through unpromising beginnings to a triumphant end with a little-known character possessed of a touch of mystery? If that is what you want, then read on because a great narrative is unfolding right now in Sri Lanka, where Ajantha Mendis is the latest to join an exclusive club whose members in the past have included Bernard Bosanquet, Sonny Ramadhin, Johnny Gleeson and Jack Iverson. Mendis, who starts his second Test match today (Thursday), is the latest incarnation of the Mystery Spinner.

He is certainly a mystery to India’s batsmen, who were bamboozled, flummoxed, befuddled and bewildered by him firstly in the Asia cup, where he took 6/13, and then in last week’s Test match, when he took 8-132, the best figures by a Sri Lankan bowler on debut. The week after Monty Panesar and Paul Harris wheeled away, stock ball after stock ball, unimaginative over after unimaginative over, Mendis and Muttiah Muralitheran flicked their fingers and rotated their wrists to such effect that they took nineteen of the twenty wickets to fall. And this against batsmen who were breastfed on spin.

For those who have not seen Mendis in action, he stands at the end of his run, twirling the ball in his fingers just as would any common-as-muck off-spinner. That is where the similarity ends. He then grips the ball like a seamer in the very tips of his fingers, as if he is holding a precious relic, runs in quickly and bowls at a quickish pace. As his non-bowling hand reaches upwards just before delivery, the index finger on that hand points skywards as if in premonition that the umpire is about to give the batsman out. So far, the umpires have responded with bewildering regularity.

On release, the mystery unfolds. He lays claim to more deliveries than an NHS mid-wife, a mixture of off-spinners, leg-spinners, googlies, flippers and a ball that is flicked out somewhere between the thumb and second finger. None of India’s batsmen could pick him. Mendis says he has five variations and is working on a sixth. This may be true, or may just reflect that he has learnt a trick or two from Shane Warne, who began every Ashes series with the claim that he had developed a ‘new’ delivery when in fact the older he got the fewer he had under his command.

This variety is accompanied by unerring accuracy. Basically, whatever delivery Mendis bowls, he bowls at the stumps. This might sound like a Pythonesque statement of the obvious but it is an important factor in his success. Today’s umpires are much more likely to give batsmen out leg-before on the front foot, which forces them to play with bat rather than pad. As a result of the batsman being unable to play with his pad on the line of the ball, a spinner does not have to spin the ball hugely to take either edge. And Mendis, for all his variations, is not as big a spinner of the ball as, say, Muralitheran.

Every time Mendis fools a batsman- which is often- he does so with the ghosts of Bosanquet, Iverson, Gleeson and Ramadhin looking on proudly. Are there common themes that bind these strange creatures together? Mystery is an obvious pre-requisite. Bosanquet, of course, was the man who invented the googly after years of playing a game called twisti-twosti, whereby he would spin a tennis ball across a table in such a way as to fool his opponents. Iverson, Gleeson and Ramadhin all flicked the ball, one way or another, from the finger much as Mendis does now. This flicked delivery has recently been christened the ‘carrom ball’, as it resembles the way carrom players flick their disks onto a carrom board.

Such finger-flicking ability requires enormously strong digits, something Mendis seems to share especially with Iverson whose fingers and hands were so big and strong according to his biographer, Gideon Haigh, that the ball settled into his grip ‘like a marble for squirting.’ Gleeson attributed his finger strength to his upbringing in the Australian outback where he spent much of his time milking cows. Did Ramadhin’s finger strength come from his enthusiasm for motor mechanics?

These men of mystery often started bowling late in life, were self-taught and had little formal coaching. Ramadhin did not bowl at school and only began to at all because at 5 ft 4” he wasn’t big enough to get a regular go as a batsman at his club. Gleeson has been quoted as saying that he learnt his bag of tricks playing ‘backyard cricket with a jacaranda tree as the wicket.’ Iverson bowled fast at school and then did not bowl for 12 years, until he began experimenting with a ball during army service in Papa New Guinea.

Mendis shares an army background with Iverson, having been trained as a gunner (let’s hope his finger strength doesn’t come from constantly pulling the trigger) in the artillery. He began bowling early enough, but, crucially, was left to develop without the interference of coaches. Sri Lankan cricket has often looked chaotic from the outside, but chaos can be a good thing in cricket, especially if unorthodoxy rather than rigid conformity is encouraged. Would Lasith Malinga, he of the low, slingy action, have been left alone had he been English? Would Mendis have been allowed to develop in such a free-spirited way in England? I doubt it.

Instant success is another common theme: Bosanquet took 16 wickets in his first three Tests against Australia; Ramadhin came to England in 1950 and took 135 wickets @14.88, and Iverson played five Tests against England in 1950-51 taking 21 wickets @15.73. Mendis’s own first-class career to date has been startling: in his first two years in first-class cricket he has taken 119 wickets @14.68.

But then this success is often short-lived. This is unsurprising, perhaps. Word gets around, tactics are discussed (unless, as the story goes with Gleeson, you are Geoff Boycott and refuse to share the secret with your team-mates) and the mystery is gradually is unravelled. Gleeson eventually took on a more defensive, stock-bowler’s role. Iverson didn’t play much after 1951 and ended up committing suicide. Peter May and Colin Cowdrey administered their own form of death to Ramadhin in 1957 by using their pads, something that could not happen today.

But now, of course, the mystery men are even more disadvantaged by television and the use of slow-motion replays making that which is mysterious seem mundane. Either that, or batsmen in the end come to realise what Gleeson admitted in typical Aussie fashion when asked about his five deliveries: ‘that’s bullshit,’ he said, ‘you can only do three things: spin it from the leg, spin it from the off or go on straight.’

After Mendis’s startling success against India, he has been twice promoted in the army, firstly to sergeant and then to second-lieutenant. The question is where he will end up: as commander-in-chief or back in the ranks? Watching Panesar and Harris take all the mystery out of spin, let us hope his mystery is not unravelled and his success is long-lasting. But if the historical antecedents are anything to go by, we should enjoy him while we can.