“All of Mendis’ six Test tons have been of the highest quality, though a few years from now when he is recollecting his best moments, this ton is sure to rank among the very best”
A series win over South Africa in both Tests and ODIs that put the island nation on a high; a home series routing against England that was so disastrous that it hurt to witness it; a series victory over Australia last year that instilled belief; a South Africa tour in 2017 that was more than abysmal; a fine come-from-behind series-leveling win in stern conditions against West Indies this year and a first round exit from the Asia Cup – such has been Sri Lanka’s performance in the last 24 months.
The performance of the team has gone on from inspiring to catastrophic, with ministers questioning the fitness level of cricketers, players being given the captaincy and then getting stripped off it, losing the ODI s to Zimbabwe last year and on the other hand going on to script a record chase against India in the Champions Trophy, when they chased down 322 for the loss of just 3 wickets. Among this arrhythmic melody, only one player Kusal Mendis has stood out; the player who seems unaffected by the boisterous action outside. The one who remains sedately calm even in the thick of action.
He was in the forefront when Sri Lanka tided over an 86-run deficit to beat Australia at Pallekele. With a kind of innings that the best of the best players aim for, Mendis overcame the obstacles to change the course of the series. He was there when the side thrashed Australia at Galle and was in the picture again when he played a crucial innings against Bangladesh to help the team to victory. The Champions Trophy triumph against neighbours India had him top-scoring and has he amassed the most ODI fifties for his team in 2017, it was clear. Here was a batsman who had survived through the transition – a phase where players entered; failed and walked away. He stood tall even as his team desperately tried to wade through the current; the player who gave confidence to his team with his mere presence at the crease.
However, as is the norm, the ebbs soon followed. After his match-defining knock of 108 against West Indies this year, Mendis waited and waited for his day to arrive. 15 innings passed and there was nothing to show but two knocks of 87 and 86. In an era when the Sri Lankan coaches remove an out-of-form player in the blink of an eye, Mendis was backed unconditionally by batting coach Thilan Samaraweera in this leanest phase. Samaraweera is set to be replaced by Jon Lewis after the next game, but after Mendis had compiled what can be termed as his best knock to date after Sri Lanka were on the mat at the Basin Reserve, the 23-year old heaped significant praise.
‘I’m really thankful to Thilan aiya because I was in a really low place – I had failed about 15 one-dayers, and still the coach (Chandika Hathurusingha) and Thilan aiya refused to drop me,” Mendis said after batting out the entirety of day four in Wellington, hitting his sixth Test ton in the process. “They let me play Tests again. I was only able to get here because they stood by me. Thilan goes after the next Test, but I’m really thankful to him. I was only able to do this because of them.”
His skills and his temperament were well-known throughout the cricketing world, and on Tuesday with a fine innings, many will argue the fact. His innings of 116 was an amalgamation of ambition and intent as he looked to wear out the Kiwi bowlers, who had wreaked havoc on Day 3, by scalping 3 quick wickets. On a pitch that offered very little sideways seam movement, Mendis along with Angelo Mathews, who had scored 83 in the first innings, combined to provide a stiff resistance as Sri Lanka did not lose a single wicket on Day 4 – the first time that no wicket fell on a day since 2008.
Mendis was the more fluent batsman of the two, as he attacked the short-pitched bowling early on and then continued his onslaught as the bowlers changed to bowling fuller towards lunch. He began by hitting Trent Boult for a four with a closed bat-face and then as he gained in confidence, the elegant on-drives and the pulls were a regular sight. The short of a length deliveries were pulled away with elan and as he bought down his bat for a perfect straight drive off a full ball by Neil Wagner, one could realize why Samaraweera had held on to him.
It was not only the runs that he accumulates. It is the manner in which he gets them. There was finesses as he played with soft hands; there the elegant pose as he drove Southee down the ground and as he got to his hundred with a pull down fine leg off a shorter ball, the faith that the management had had in him was vindicated.
All of Mendis’ six Test tons have been of the highest quality, though a few years from now when he is recollecting his best moments, this ton is sure to rank among the very best.