Sri Lanka is home to a large ethnicity of people, possessing a diverse culture and a lot of languages. A documented history of the country would date back to more than 3000 years with the first known Buddhist writings dated at 29BC. A land with such rich heritage is bound to have certain mysteries, however, who would have expected it to transcend into cricket?
Over the years, the Lankans have had a special affinity in unearthing mystery spinners, the kind who have explored their hand and the cricket ball so much that they know to turn, bend, tweak it so well that it leaves the batsmen clueless as to what the ball would do.
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The best of them ruled the spinning world for close to two decades, the wily, prudent, queer spinner from Kandy ended with 800 Test wickets and was the toast of Sri Lankan cricket for a long, long time, overseeing their progress from a minnow status to one of World champions and a formidable Test unit. Sri Lanka’s cricket history would have a whole chapter on Muttiah Muralitharan and it would still be an unfinished tale.
Muralitharan was just the first of many to come. The latest on the circuit seems to be an under-19 spinner taking part in the Youth Asia Cup in Malaysia – Kevin Koththigoda. The 18-year old leg-spinner bowls with an action eerily reminiscent of Paul Adams, that flexible South African spinner, but if anything, is even more complex.
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He took one wicket in the game against Afghanistan in Malaysia but was the talking point everywhere from opposition camps to Twitter for his mysterious action. Dhammika Sudarshana, a former opener in Sri Lankan domestic circuit has seen the kid at close quarters right from school level.
“He has a very unusual action. It’s like that of Paul Adams. The action wasn’t coached or anything, it came naturally to him. Initially, he was struggling with the length as he couldn’t see the pitch, but he has improved tremendously,” Sudarshana had told Cricbuzz.
“Since his action is unique, the batsmen get confused. He is an excellent fielder and a decent batsman. He has got a very bright future ahead of him,” Sudarshana added.
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Koththigoda arrives at a time Sri Lanka were rejoicing the rediscovery of another very special mystery spinner, Akila Dananjaya. A brute with the ball in hand, Dananjaya is a specialist of subtle variations and unleashed all his fury on the Indians in a recent ODI in Sri Lanka.
Although India managed to escape with a win in that match, Dananjaya hurt them so badly that a rather below par total suddenly looked defendable. That is the kind of influence these spinners can have in limited-overs cricket. A few, like Muralitharan, master it in the longer formats of the game as well and turn into legends.
Dananjaya, though, is rather different to Koththigoda and Muralitharan. He has a rather common action, devoid of any mysteries but the ball turns appreciably and unpredictably once it lands, a trait that left even the best players-of-spin, the Indians, bamboozled.
Koththigoda’s success would, however, depend on how well he can consistently land the ball in the right areas and question batsmen on the defence with his variations. Dananjaya was deciphered by the Indians soon after that game and although he did tease a few around, most of the batsmen found a way to negotiate him.
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Dananjaya though is a minor cog in Sri Lanka’s long tryst with mystery spinners. The most guileful of them, Ajanta Mendis, wrecked havoc in the Asia Cup final against India in 2008. His 6/13 dumbfounded the Indian batsmen and left them grappling for answers. Rob Steen had a few months back witnessed the deceitful Mendis in West Indies and commented: “I have seen the future of spin bowling – and his name is Ajantha Mendis.”
That prophecy never quite materialised as Mendis faded into oblivion soon after becoming the fastest to 50 ODI wickets. Sporadic appearances here and there was also he had to boast of after batsmen found out ways to not only negotiate him but also send him to the cleaners.
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Then came a certain Lakshan Sandakan. A chinaman spinner with a merciless googly and a handful of variations, Sandakan had the Aussies spun in a web on his debut taking figures of 7/107 in the match. He even grabbed a five-for in the Test series against India two months back and remains the third spinner in the Lankan side behind Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera.
Whether Koththigoda can replicate the initial success shown by Ajantha Mendis or a career of accomplishments like Muttiah Muralitharan or a dream match like Akila Dananjaya only time will tell. For now, he remains the latest cog in Sri Lanka’s inexhaustible mystery spinner’s vessel.