Before the Cricket World Cup 2011 commenced, I was in Sri Lanka on a visit. Harsha Perera, former Cricket Coach at St Joseph’s College, currently coach of the Sri Lanka Women’s Team and a friend of mine, took me to Kettharama Stadium to show me around. This Stadium was to be the showcase for the Sri Lankan based World Cup matches and already was the Head Quarters of Sri Lanka Cricket’s High Performance Unit (HPU).
Work on the Stadium was behind schedule, the place was a hive of activity with hundreds of workers on site – work had been in progress round the clock for weeks but the place was a muddy dusty mess, and even the Army was eventually commandeered to give the place the spit and polish demanded by the ICC Charter.
As Harsha Perera and I dodged the wet cement, the uneven stones and debris, we passed the outdoor practice wickets used by the Sri Lanka players and the High Performance squads. There were about five or six practice turf wickets but just one lonely and solitary player practicing his bowling. He had a bagful of cricket balls and he kept bowling non-stop at a set of stumps without a batsman at the crease. I stopped to watch as I noticed a sweaty but willing Ajantha Mendis continue to send down his little, swift tricky darts at the unmanned stumps. He gave us a quick wave and a smile but continued to send down ball after ball at the stumps.
Harsha and I continued on our way, spent about an hour visiting the HPU, talking to the staff there. We spent about an hour or so watching the Inter-Zonal Final being played and another 45 minutes taking with Sri Lanka Coach Trevor Bayliss and Selectors Aravinda de Silva and Ranjit Fernando. It was time to leave and meet up with my family and as we stepped out of the Stadium and back past those practice wickets, I noticed Ajantha Mendis was still diligently practicing his skilful trade. That was almost two hours and 45 minutes in conditions that were hot and humid and all this alone. The point of my story is simple.
His hard work and practice worked for him at the World Cup. The records say it all. He was the Cup’s most economical bowler and gave Sri Lanka a wonderful “X” factor in its bowling line up.
In my last article on this very website on the eve of the great Final, I wrote, “Sri Lanka has the best bowling attack in the Sub-continent. We all know that Murali and Malinga were champions but for me the best has been Ajantha Mendis. What an exponent of the art of spin and economy. For those who followed my Drifts of the past, I always said that the spinners would win us this World Cup.”
There is now no point in crying over spilt milk. We lost this World Cup to India fair and square. Sri Lanka played beautiful cricket and good ole India played it even better! The Indian team played like men possessed and good luck to them.
But . . I will go to my death bed convinced that it was an unforgiveable mistake, on his current form, not to have played Ajantha Mendis. As I sat down with my wife, as almost every Sri Lankan supporter in Australia did that Saturday night, I nearly choked on my red wine when I heard the commentators mention that Suraj Randiv had replaced the economical Ajantha Mendis in the side.
To me it was not the fact that Randiv is a bad exponent of the art of spin. He is a great young bowler with a big future. But, if I was Ajantha Mendis, I would have every right to feel “really pissed off”. This young man had been a part of the original squad, he took crucial wickets for Sri Lanka at the right moments and, above all, was economical and tied one end up for his team. Bugger the theory that the Indian team had one too many left handers, bugger the theory that he was expensive against the Indians a year or two ago. That does not work for me.
To me, Ajantha Mendis was in a good zone and was bowling beautifully at this World Cup and full of confidence. To me, he was Sri Lanka’s best at this World Cup. I am prepared to run the length and breadth of Sri Lanka in my underpants to disagree with his non selection and to tell the nation that it was so wrong to bring in a new player, no matter how good he is, to replace an original member of the squad who is not injured nor bowling poorly.
Whoever was responsible for this diabolical error of judgement – and they would have had their learned and collective reasons – failed to consider team morale and Ajantha’s own self esteem and confidence.
It would be impossible and foolhardy to state that this was the reason for our loss in the final –no chance of that from my end. But, lets face the facts, the selection of young Randiv was a dead set flop and so unnecessary in terms of team morale and considering the squad already available.
Simply, India played better on the day and outplayed Sri Lanka. For supporters of Sri Lanka to state otherwise or that Ranatunga should have been the sole selector or that Vass and Jayasuriya should have played or that Kulasekera’s selection was the wrong option would be an insult to India’s brilliant performance in the Final. In the latter case, young Kulasekera is one of the most improved Sri Lankan players of recent times. He batted exceptionally well to partner the great Mahela Jayawardene in an extra-ordinary recovery but had an ordinary day with the ball against a masterful batting display by India. But then, so did Murali, Malinga and Randiv. This was a country of 20 m playing a giant cricketing nation of 1.1 billion.
Imagine this. A small strife torn nation (thankfully that is now in the past), the size of a tear drop, in the Cricket World Cup Final. Little old Sri Lanka has now been in three Cricket World Cup Finals – winning one. Speaks volumes for the talent and great heart of its cricket team. Speaks volumes for the extra-ordinary nature of its cricket loving people.