In his part Roman-a-clef novel ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’, Shehan Karunalatika weaves such a mesmerising tale that, by the end of it, you are convinced that the book’s fictional ambidexterous spinner who could do everything – even managing leg and off spin in the same double-bouncing delivery – indeed existed in Sri Lanka. Among a number of things the expansive and powerful novel captures Sri Lanka’s passion for mystery spinners, just like India’s obsession for batsmen and Pakistan’s for fast bowlers. This fascination rubs off on others too, so much so the world also expectantly waits for another spin wizard to come from the island-nation.
And therefore your antennas go up when you look up Kamindu Mendis’s profile on Cricinfo. Full name: Pasqual Handi Kamindu Dilanka Mendis, Born: September 30, 1998, Galle, Current age…. your eyes light up when you reach ‘Bowling style’. It says ‘Right-arm offbreak, Slow left-arm orthodox’. Wait a minute, what?!
Ambidexterity is not uncommon in sport. In cricket, you often see a left-arm bowler batting right-handed, and vice versa. Rare, however, are the cases of ambidexterity in the same discipline: that is, instances of a right-handed batsman batting left-handed, and vice-versa, with authority. Sunil Gavaskar once batted left-handed against Karnataka, in the 1981-82 Ranji Trophy semifinal, in order to counter the deadly left-arm spin of Raghuram Bhat. Of late, we have seen Kevin Pietersen executing the switch hit — which is essentially a left-handed shot.
Corresponding bowling examples are rarer still. Among the notable examples, Hashan Tillakaratne could bowl both. In fact, during the 1996 World Cup match against Kenya in Kandy, with Sri Lanka cruising to a record win, Tillakaratne, who bowled off-spin, sent down three left-arm orthodox balls in the final over for fun. But it was a stray case. And his profile says he was right-arm off-break. More recently, a Vidarbha bowler, Akshay Karnewar, has been turning heads in his debut season for his ability to bowl left-arm and right-arm.
Despite this knowledge, you eagerly wait for the captain to hand Mendis the ball. What else can he do, you wonder. Can he bowl the undercutter, the leaper and the mythical double-bounced ball? Can he even bowl chinaman? It’s in the 26th over that Charith Asalanka, Sri Lanka’s skipper, brings him on. Pakistan are 94 for three and the right-handed combination of Hasan Mohsin and Umair Masood is batting. Mendis begins with left-arm spin. On the third ball, there is a breakthrough, but it’s down to fielding as Masood in done in by a direct throw while trying to steal a single.
The next man in is Salman Fayyaz. He is a leftie. And the moment arrives. For the fourth ball of the over, Mendis switches to right-arm spin. It catches both Fayyaz and Hasan by surprise. He bowls four overs and raps Mohsin on the pad for an lbw appeal and gets a leading edge off his bat that lands safely. He also goes for a few runs. The control is decent, more when he is bowling left-arm spin. That’s probably because he is, naturally, a left-hander.
“I believe I can play left-arm spinners easily — whether he’s bowling an armer or a break,” Mohsin, who top-scored for Pakistan with 86, says. But he does admit he was taken by surprise when Mendis switched to right-arm off-break.
Mendis may not have taken any wickets in this match, but he did pick four wickets in their previous two games: against Afghanistan and Canada. “I think you are born with this talent,” he says. “Because when I was in school I practised with both hands. When I was 15 the coach told me to try with both arms so I did yet. For the first time when I bowled in an Under-17 game, I got four wickets in that match.”
And he has an appropriate role model, too. “Hashan Tillakaratne. He bowled with both arms, so I think I learnt from him. His son (Ravindu) was playing with us at school, he is a chinaman bowler. But he can throw with both arms,” he informs.
While his bowling doesn’t live up to your lofty expectations, Mendis later shows another facet of his game: his batting. He revives Sri Lanka’s chase of 213, but wheels fall off after he is out for 68. “I am primarily a batting all-rounder,” he says. Can he bat both right-handed and left-handed? “No I can’t bat with both hands, but I can reverse sweep,” he laughs, as the coach whisks him away.
Mendis, then, is not the real life equivalent of Pradeep Mathew. His bowling needs a lot of polishing to be competent. Once the novelty wears off, and it wears off quickly, it’s not too difficult for batsmen to play him. But he betters our fictional hero in one respect. Pradeep Mathew couldn’t bat to save his life.