To steal shamelessly from Jon Landau, the man entrusted with selling a scraggy wannabe Bob Dylan by the name of Bruce Springsteen to the planet in 1975, I have just seen the future of spin bowling – and his name is Ajantha Mendis.
Until now, given the recent stumbles of Danish Kaneria and the apparent failure of several young Australian twirlers to live up to their billing, detecting the seeds of a new generation of spinners worthy of following the holy trinity of Warne, Murali and Kumble has been a troubling and deflating quest. Whisper it softly, but on the evidence of his international debut in Port-of-Spain today, however chastening his team’s astonishing defeat may have been, this wide-eyed 23-year-old member of the Sri Lankan army could well emerge as the leader of the new pack.
Friends in Colombo had warned me that something special was on the horizon, trumpeting Mendis as the owner of the freakiest fingers since Jack Iverson. They weren’t exaggerating by much. Googlies, leggies, offies and flippers all eased effortlessly from that precociously adaptable right hand, facilitated by three distinct modes of release – barely discernible to the devoted couch potato and leaving the batsmen groping and clueless.
The ball that bamboozled and lbw-ed Chris Gayle, just as the West Indies captain was threatening to turn a tricky chase into a jaunt, was a worthy calling card. The one that curved in and straightened to take off stump was utterly wasted on Darren Sammy. No less impressive was the way Mendis held his nerve after Jerome Taylor clouted him for six, tossing the next ball up in similar fashion and reaping the reward of an outfield catch.
With the game reeling groggily as the implications of the IPL set traditionalists against innovators, old world against new, Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s improbable sixes off the fifth and last balls of the final over in Trinidad were a profoundly welcome shot in the arm, a reminder that sport is more about drama and improbability than dollars and nonsense. The advent of Mendis could be that and much, much more.