Challenge begins now
Lord knows how they classify Ajantha Mendis in other areas of the world but round these parts, people of a certain vintage will most likely refer to him as a finger bowler.
These were types found mostly in Karachi in the 1970s, tennis ball in hand and an unresponsive tarmac road or cement pitch to bowl on, odds stacked against them. The ball was squeezed in the kind of grip Jack Iverson had, or for locals, similar to how you would strike the striker on a carrom board.
On pitching and regaining its original shape again the ball would shoot through, with sharp spin either way, predictably leaving batsmen none the wiser. Nadeem Moosa was a modest first-class left-arm spinner with the cricket ball in hand but a lethal finger champion with the tennis ball. His success on the local circuit, goes the urban legend, hastened the prevalence of the taped tennis ball: the logic being it was harder to squeeze and thus spin.
But if Mendis keeps bowling as he has done through the Asia Cup, through his brief career so far, eventually people will not much care how to typecast him. Mendis is what he is, for now at least.
His approach to the crease is less run-up and more the hurried walk-through of a harried financial executive. The grips are of the kind super slo-mo was really created for. The absence of a stock ball is the only other tangible conclusion from eight quality overs tonight and many more through the last two weeks. Some he turns one way, some the other, though the most profitable delivery here was the one that threatened much yet did nothing but fizz on straight. In this there were shades of early 1990s Anil Kumble, just wackier and less earnest.
And like Kumble, for tonight at least, he located not just the arrow-straight line but also the length: too far forward, you look a fool, stay back and risk being trapped. Admittedly, some of his victims gave themselves up, though it can be argued that in playing for something that never came, the victory is also the bowler's. The leg-break to remove RP Singh should've been reserved for a more capable opponent. Even a hattrick could've been his, but you suspect more opportunities might come his way against clueless tailenders.
His most remarkable achievement of the night, however, was that facing the great Muttiah Muralitharan appeared a doddle by comparison. Mahendra Singh Dhoni said later that he just couldn't be read at all. His men weren't alone; Mahela Jayawardene admitted he'd been bowled a couple of times facing Mendis and that Kumar Sangakkarra spent an hour a day in the nets before the tournament keeping to Mendis, trying to pick up his variations. It's one thing, Jayawardene said, to read him from the hand, another altogether to then play him off the pitch.
Jayawardene's ploy not to play him in the group game against India was less to rest him than to keep him cloaked in secrecy, though he coyly suggested otherwise later. There has been a growing curiosity around Mendis over the last few months, but this performance will propel him on to the big stage, right in to the glare. The secret is now out. Video machines and laptops will start whirring, chewing up his every step, his every variation, his every grip.
A mystery spinner he has been thus far. The mystery is now out in the open and every batsman is out to solve it. The real challenge for Mendis, of uncertain categorisation, to maintain that secrecy, begins now.