Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ajantha Mendis -- normal is boring

One of the few ads that always caught my attention was one that featured the Fido-Dido character for Seven up with the tagline, "Normal is Boring". It caught up my imagination so much that I imagined up the character as the logo for my college culturals, "Interface 2000" with the tag line, "And the Freak shall inherit the Earth". And me and my under-grad classmate, Vijay Anand (aka Jinnah, now Dr. "Fuel Cells" Vijay Anand Sethuraman at Berkeley) were always turned on by the Apple Computers' pitch: "Think Different" (sic). Perhaps it was in our character to do so, and perhaps that explains my zany career path. But I digress. The Fido-dido dude's new incarnation is in cricket: the carrom ball deliverer and wicket guzzler, Ajantha Mendis.

His 6-13 performance against India in the Asia Cup was, to tell the truth, no surprise for me. I had watched his debut game on TV against the West Indies and was as much bamboozled with his art as much as the batsmen in the game were. It was only a matter of time that the bewilderment was to be infected by other players facing him, and India were at the brunt of the Mendis attack the day before yesterday.

So far, Mendis has not yet played test cricket. But the relatively small sample of one day cricket and a single T-20 match is enough to whet the appetite of the gluttonous connoisseurs of the "art of cricket". An assortment of what spin is all about is what Mendis is all about. He can turn the ball from the off to the leg (the offspinner); he can deliver the same with the wrist (the googly); he can tweak his offspinning hand to flick the ball from mid to outside off (the doosra), he can bowl the conventional leg spinner and most devastating of all, he can make the ball hit the turf and rear up with an extra co-efficient of restitution (the top spinner). He is in essence a catch-all spinner, except not much of him is caught by the batsman facing his onslaught of variety. The greatest attribute he has is the ability to keep his line and length simple, i.e. "plonk" in the area right in front of the stumps. And all that with his nimble fingers and subtle movements of the wrist, that act in close co-ordination with a courageous mind that takes on all batsmen - accomplished or not - as surefire prey for his spinning hunt.

Photo shots from video clip of his first match against the Windies (googly, off spin, doosra- from l to r)

The off spinner is more or less conventionally delivered, but the doosra retains nearly the same configuration of fingers and wrist, but is delivered with a flick of the middle finger. The googly brings in the wrist more into action, with the ball shifted to the thumb and index finger for emphasis, while the top spinner follows the same co-ordination principle of the doosra, except that the middle finger is replaced by the index finger for emphasis. In essence, the variety is controlled by a co-ordination of fingers, wrist and a nimble mind constantly trying to out-think the willow wielding opponent.

Technical aspects apart, the simple sophistication of this newcomer is a whiff of fresh air to the art of cricket, ravaged as it is by the take over of the brutal and the mechanic, both of which adjectives are the rage of the T-20 dominated cricketing hour. No doubt, as Mendis flits about plying his inscrutable art, he will be the object of scrutiny. Recorders, video players and Laptops would be dissecting his flavor of delivery and the conventions of mechanics would soon be trying to overcome the mystery of his art. Science therefore would be hitting out at art and deciphering the laws of his difference and batting machines will be tuned to overcoming the gap between comprehension and mystification. That possibility is always there.

But what differentiates Mendis from rest of the freak shows of the past (Saqlain Mushtaq discovered the doosra but forgot that he was an off spinner, Muthiah Muralitharan's birth defect makes his spinning skill a permanent one-off) is that his freakishness is all encompassing. How much ever, batsmen master his top spin, they would have to still contend with trying to find the difference in a split second between his doosra and his off spin and if they did that, they would still have to handle the variation between his googly and his leg spin. There is enough hope for Mendis to keep prospering as the examination that he has set for the batsmen with his ability is much tougher than the tests of the past freak shows. That is his biggest advantage as a prospect for the future: his ability to set a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the art of spin bowling.

Here is wishing him the best of fortitude and resilience in keeping his art show intact. We need the Fido-Dido of international cricket to continue to resist the tendency to "normalise" and "standardise" the sport and keep proving the freakish adage, "Normal is boring" right.


Anand P.K said...

Great analysis da. But you have not mentioned about his special delivery, the carrom ball. This delivery is said to be bowled by him with the flick of the index spinner, while holding the thumb round. Again another subtle variation of delivery,he camouflages it very well. Also, there have been views that he lacks the stock delivery or the straighter one which any spinner has. But I refuse to buy that argument. As I say, he is a rare breed. Wonder what is in the air, soil and water of Sri Lanka that they produce such variety of multi-talented cricketers.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Thanks, machan.are you sure it is the index finger? I thought it was the middle finger that he uses to push in the doosra. I have mentioned that in the article.

His stock delivery is the one which confuses the batsman with the unexpected ball ;) The only thing that has led to Sri Lankans unearthing such gems is the fact that the coaches in Lanka perhaps try to keep away from standardising talent that is extraordinary.

I am rooting for him in the India series.

Anand P.K said...

Quite like our MRF Pace Foundation. Pakistani legends like Wasim Akram has often said that natural traits and talents have to be nurtured and allowed to flourish. Hence, our pacemen shoould not be conditioned to changes or remodifying bowling actions.