It's been fascinating to watch the Indian batsmen battle Ajantha Mendis (and Murali, lest we forget) over the first two Tests in Sri Lanka. Mendis has had amazing success against a batting lineup that is often said to be the best against spin bowling. Does this mean Mendis is on a different plane altogether, or is it due to his being new and freaky? I'll explore this question in this post.
If you look at the Indian batting, two of its pillars - Dravid and Laxman - have built their reputations on conquering fast bowling rather than spin. Add in Yuvraj Singh, although he's hardly a regular in the Test team. In the past, spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq and Murali have had the measure of these batsmen. Dravid and Laxman have struggled badly in this series especially against Mendis, never sure whether to stretch forward or play off the backfoot. Whatever plan they had for tackling the M&Ms, it hasn't worked.
Sachin, Sehwag and Ganguly are of course very, very good against spin and Gambhir is proving that he belongs in that company. Ganguly hasn't quite shown it in this series, but Sehwag and Gambhir have scored freely against M&M, and Sachin has looked comfortable. So, overall, it must still be said that the Indian top-6 are the best lineup against spin bowling in the world. Which brings us back to Mendis the menace.
What's special about Mendis? It's that never-before-seen bowling action, the carrom-flick delivery, but it's also the variety. In the past I've often wondered, why doesn't an off spinner try bowling the occasional leg spin (with the conventional wrist action), or vice versa? Sachin Tendulkar does it, once in a while. Easy enough to pick, sure, but wouldn't it add to the uncertainty in the batsman's planning? Everything you're taught about technique, hitting with the spin etc. has to be rethought if the bowler can't be slotted as an LBG, SLA or whatever.
That's what Mendis has achieved. Apart from his carrom-flick ball which moves either way, he bowls a conventional off spinner and a finger-action googly (a la Kumble). These don't just spin in different directions (or go straight on occasionally), there are also small variations in pace. Even if you can pick him out of the hand, you're still forced to do it every single delivery! Imagine the levels of concentration and application that demands of the batsman. In contrast, with most left-arm orthodox bowlers you know which way it's going to turn, and you only have to watch out for the arm ball from round the wicket. With LBG bowlers, the googly is only used as a surprise weapon once in a couple of overs, so again the batsman can set himself to play leg-spin, with variations only in line and length. And similarly with off-spinners, it's only a rare few who can bowl the occasional doosra; most of the time, you know it's going to turn off-to-leg.
Mendis' carrom ball is his real novelty, and doubly so because he can get it to move both ways. Listening to the commentators, it doesn't seem that they have figured it out either. The one thing I've noticed in the slow-mo replays is that the seam position seems to matter. When the seam is reasonably upright, it seems to move like an off-break; when it's almost cross-seam, it spins from leg-to-off. But I haven't seen enough replays to mark a definite correlation with the seam position. I'm sure the video analysts of most Test teams are hard at work already. So it's possible that it's only a matter of time (and enough video evidence) before the batsmen get some help in tackling that ball.
Old-timers talk about how, when India's Prasanna and Venkat would bowl their off-spinners, the ball would make a whizzing sound on its way to the batsman. That's because they didn't merely roll their fingers over the ball. They gripped the ball on the seam, like a seam bowler might, with forefinger and middle-finger on top and the thumb underneath. And at the point of delivery, they'd impart lots of rpms on the ball with a mighty snap of the fingers. Apart from imparting spin, this had the effect of generating a nice loop or drift (depending on the arm action). Most of today's spinners don't do that, and are consequently less effective. Mendis and Murali don't either, but their actions are totally unconventional anyway.
Anyway, that was a digression... So, even if the video evidence yields some results, Mendis will remain difficult to tackle simply because of his variety, his four different deliveries, all bowled regularly (and not just as an occasional surprise weapon). His real achievement is not in developing four different deliveries - Shane Warne will claim that he had many more - but in having such control over all of them as to bowl them at will. The LBG bowler often struggles to pitch the googly on the right line and length, and often gets it woefully short or down the leg side. Not so with Mendis. His control over line (almost invariably within the "mat") and length (rare short balls) is wonderful. He still hasn't been really tested of course - bowling on a totally flat pitch, going through a long series of wicketless overs, or being attacked by batsman willing to use their feet. If he can retain that control and variety in adverse conditions, he will continue to be successful in Test cricket. Of course, these days a lot happens in cricket between Test series. How he fares in the limited overs versions of the game will have a bearing as well. But that's a topic for another day...