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Unraveling the Mendis mystery! - Chetan Narula Column
by Chetan Narula
Sep 11, 2008
So, Rohit Sharma says playing Ajantha Mendis will be easier now. Well, an average of 14.40 however means that he didn't read him that easily the first time, and one can only wonder what will change in the time that pans out until they next meet, probably in the IPL.

For the past two months, Indians, cricketers and fans alike, have been flabbergasted by the Sri Lankan mystery spinner. For the way the Indian batsmen – supposedly the best players of spin in the whole wide world – have been bowled over like ninepins, all by one man, surely means that there is no hope for the rest of the teams who don't play spin that well.

Rest assured, journalists and analysts the world over have tried to sort out Ajantha Mendis by now and yours truly is but, of course, a part of them.

Basically, the deliveries that he bowls are the same as any spinner in world cricket. His stock deliveries are the off-break and the top spinner, like any other off-spinner before him or after him. However, the amazing fact is that he spins the ball both ways, yes, leg-break as well, something which no contemporary spinner boasts of. And then there are the variations. Since he bowls both ways off-the-wicket, he has two wrong'uns in his arsenal; a 'doosra' for the off-break and a well disguised 'googly' for the classical leg-break. Now beat that!

Spinners all over the world are differentiated with their finger positions and grip of the ball. Murali and Harbhajan maybe both off-spinners, but the former is a wrist spinner while the Turbanator is a finger spinner. Almost a similar difference exists when you talk of Kumble and Warne, the former even using a more open-chested medium-pace-like action while delivering. So, it is no surprise then, that the key to Mendis being extra-ordinary is his grip of the ball, which is different from all others practicing this art today. He is a finger spinner!

At all times, the ball stays pivoted between the thumb and the fore-finger of the right hand. And almost at all times, the ball is delivered by the magic in the first three fingers of the right hand. Mendis isn't the first one to have such an action, the legendary Aussie duo of Jack Iverson and John Gleeson were the first exponents of such mysterious spin bowling in international cricket. And it is only after so many years are we seeing a repeat of the phenomenon.

The 'opening of door-knob' action generally defines the modalities involved in spin bowling. If you turn the ball clockwise, it will be an off-break while an anticlockwise spin will make it turn from the leg. Of course, like in all cases, the position of the wrist plays a major part in the two but this is not so in the case of Mendis, as he holds his wrist at the point of delivery.

It is his middle finger that has wreaked the most havoc on Indian batsmen specifically. He tends to bend it under the ball at most times, giving a 'flicker' affect on the ball, making it seem that he is playing a game of 'carom' in an air conditioned room than sweating it out on the cricket pitch. The top spinner is the obvious delivery that comes out of this grip, while also does the 'carom ball'. Now, what is the difference between the two?

Well, the main point of differentiation is the position of the seam. While a top spinner will have the seam of the ball across and come out as an arm ball, it is the 'carom ball' that has flummoxed the batsmen the most. He has two variations that he can choose at different times and this is what is baffling even seasoned campaigners Laxman and Dravid, for the change in the position of the seam is confounding to say the least.

For a right hander, the seam can point either towards or away from the batsman, and this generally determines the delivery being bowled. At the point of delivery, the middle finger flicks the ball providing extra impetus and spin to the ball. The catch is that due to the flicking action, the position of the seam changes as the ball is released from the hand. If it is pointing away, it suddenly points towards the batsman and vice-versa. The ball doesn't dip after flicking; instead it gains height and thus, getting much more bounce from the pitch than any of his various deliveries. Also, the rotation of the ball is anti-clockwise, which causes the cherry to stop and jump up at the waiting batsman.

Ever since his debut against the West Indies, some of the dismissals of this 'carom ball' have stood out. Darren Sammy & Ramnaresh Sarwan in the Windies, Rohit Sharma in the Asia cup and Laxman, Dravid & Bhajji in the test series against India, is but a select list. What is common in all these dismissals is the fact that the ball just pitches short of length, bounces quite a lot and then clips the top of the off-stump or the middle-stump, or even hits the batsman high on the pads.

So how do you play him? Well, besides watching his hand carefully from the time he steps up to bowl, the batsman ought to carefully watch the position of the seam of the ball. Off break and leg break deliveries can be read well, but the googly is quite well disguised coming out of the back of the hand, with his run-up resembling that of a medium pacer (read Fervez Maharoof). The only possible solution to these deliveries is to play as late as possible.

But then, there is the 'carom ball' to contend with. If one does play him late, off the back-foot, the danger of being trapped in front (by a sharp in-cutter) or getting bowled (the one that bends away just a touch) increases that much. For, the ball climbs too high, too soon, leaving the batsman no time for adjustments. One other option is to come forward if you spot the top spinner, but then with a forward short leg in place, Dravid found out that even he couldn't stone-wall the latest spin sensation.

Thus, as we see, playing Ajantha Mendis is nigh impossible. So, when Rohit Sharma makes such a bold statement, it actually means that he (and the rest of the struggling Indian batting) couldn't have been happier that the Sri Lankan tour is over.

And trust him when Bishen Singh Bedi says, "His variation seems unreal, he could snare 500 wickets by the time people are able to figure him out."

Ah, the poor batsmen!
 
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