Rex Clementine in The Sunday Island, 16 March 2017
The Galle International Cricket Stadium has witnessed some remarkable moments in Test cricket. Chris Gayle hitting sixes to the Galle bus stand on his way to a remarkable 333, Muttiah Muralitharan picking up a wicket in his last ball in Test cricket to complete 800 Test wickets, Kumar Sangakkara being left stranded on 199 having run out of partners, Brian Lara’s stunning 178 in 2001, Nathan Lyon taking five wickets on debut are all firmly etched in the memories of cricket fans. Earlier this week, young Kusal Mendis gave everyone another moment to relish with his stunning 194 that contained some of the finest cricket shots that you will ever witness.
Sri Lankan cricketer Kusal Mendis raises his bat and helmet celebrating his century during the first day of the opening Test cricket match between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at the Galle International Cricket Stadium in Galle on March 7, 2017
In the process he went onto complete 1000 Test runs, becoming the youngest Sri Lankan to do so. He broke a record that had stood for 31 years. When Arjuna Ranatunga completed 1000 Test runs in 1986, he was 22 years and 105 days old. Mendis was two months younger than the former captain.
It all started in bizarre fashion. Right-arm seamer Subashis Roy had gone through the defenses of Upul Tharanga. Mendis walked in. Subashis bowled the first delivery to the new batsman wider, and Mendis took the bait, slashing hard and was caught behind. Subashis was on a hat-trick. Mendis started walking back. There was pin drop silence. The batsman was given some relief as he walked past umpire Aleem Dar when he was informed to stay for a moment until he checked the no ball. Dimuth Karunaratne, the non-striker too suspected it could be a no ball. The third umpire confirmed it. Mendis was a relieved man. He didn’t look back from there.
“Getting out first ball may have shaken him up because he really applied himself after that,” Coach Graham Ford told journalists. “He really grafted hard and it all started to get easier as he went along. It was brilliant to see when he went to his 100, he raised his bat and went to bat remarking his guard. It was pretty clear that he was starting all over again,” Ford added.
The selectors, past and present, need to be commended for the way they have dealt with Mendis’ precious talent.
When Kumar Sangakkara retired in 2015, Mendis was picked out of the blues to replace the great man at number three. It looked a bizarre selection for those were huge boots to fill as Sanga retired as the highest run getter for Sri Lanka.
A sensible choice would have been to pick a proven player in domestic cricket or a prolific run scorer for the ‘A’ team. Kusal was 20-years-old when he made his debut. He had played less than a handful of First Class games and had never featured in the ‘A’ team.
But the selection panel headed by former fast bowler Kapila Wijegunawardene had noted something others had failed to. They believed that Mendis had the temperament needed to take up this big role and he hasn’t let them down.
By the time he played in England last year, it was evident for everyone that Mendis was a special talent. Yet, he needed a big knock to cement his place in the side. That big knock came against Australia in the next series when he scored a sensational 176 at Pallekele.
Mitchell Starc sledged him mercilessly in that game. Kusal just smiled. It looked as if he had read Mahathma Gandhi’s saying, ‘Sometimes the best revenge is to smile and move on.’ Starc was bemused. He sledged Kusal again. And Kusal smiled back. You can be pretty certain that he neither understood what Starc said nor he had any idea of Gandhi’s great quote on revenge.
Mendis had a disastrous tour of South Africa. He played all games against the Proteas across all three formats but managed just two half-centuries in 14 innings. Despite such minimal returns, Sanath Jayasuriya’s selection panel backed him and picked him for the tour of Australia amidst much objection. They weren’t that kind when dealing with some of the other players.
“Kusal probably is the first to admit that he was a bit extravagant early on in South Africa and got himself out. He is not hard to back at all as he is such a wonderful talent,” Ford explained.
“He is going to win a lot of games for Sri Lanka along the way. The worst thing you could do is to put too many expectations on his shoulders. We don’t want to put him under any pressure. He is learning and no doubt with his talent he will pay us back down the line. There was never any thought of dropping him. He has got too much talent and I am sure down the line he is gonna show everybody how great he is,” Ford further said.
Ford has been extremely impressED with his attitude. “His attitude is always very impressive. He is one player always supporting the other guys and feeling very happy for the other guys. He has a smile on his face the whole time. He kept working as hard as ever. He loves his cricket, he loves his practice. We have seen with a guy like that with the amount of talent he’s got – it’s not hugely about technique – it’s just about making sure his decision making and shot selection is good and for a young guy, he is pretty good. He came back from South Africa and Australia very determined to put things right. He’s done a lot of work on his own. Hats off to the fella. He deserves it all.”