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Mendis key to Lankan fightback


Kusal_Mendis_Cricket_Sri_Lanka“Kusal [Mendis] is the best among the current lot. He has a great future in Sri Lankan cricket, but I feel he should not take unnecessary pressure, and continue to play freely,” said Aravinda de Silva, once the lynchpin of Sri Lanka's batting line-up, after Kusal Mendis’ brilliant hundred against India.

Sri Lanka's future, after the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, has rested on the shoulders of Kusal Mendis. Often touted as the biggest talent in the country, Mendis has been indecisive and inconsistent in the past, so much so that he wasn't even taken to the Indian tour last year.

“We feel that he is mentally drained,” said Avishka Gunawardene, Sri Lanka’s batting coach, before the Indian tour where Dhananjaya de Silva and Roshen Silva stood out for the visitors. Despite the prominent show of the duo, the sheer talent and flamboyance of Kusal Mendis meant he was back in the side and in a completely different role.

He had opened the innings before but with his back against the wall, Mendis’ second tenure as opener had to be successful. As though to prove a point to himself, the refurbished middle-order batsman smashed a brilliant 196 against Bangladesh at Chittagong.

His 2018 had begun with a duck against Zimbabwe in an ODI at Dhaka. But that has been his sole low point this year. In 14 matches across formats this year, Mendis has stood out from the rest of his teammates. He enjoys an average of 47.80 thanks to five half-centuries and two hundreds.

In Tests, he has been stupendous touch, racking up 377 runs in 3 Tests at 75.40 with three of his five innings’ this year being 50+ scores. In a team where the slightest pressure results in a massive breakdown, Mendis has been a shining light. He has displayed the temperament and grit to fight his way out of tough situations, exemplified by a valiant ton against the Windies at Port of Spain.

The odds were stacked against the visitors as they aimed to chase down a massive second innings target against a potent Windies attack. Thwarting the bowling, Mendis stood rock-like even as his colleagues fell around him. He was unbeaten on 94 as teams walked back on the penultimate day but failed to make the most of his hundred the next day due to a lack of support.

Chandika Hathurusinga, the new coach in charge of the Sri Lankan side, had overseen Mendis’ return to the fold and entrusted him with his new role. “Kusal's mentality is really good these days," he said. "He knows his game and understands himself better. Our coaches have worked very closely with him, and explained those things to him. He has clarity about what he does now. I think it's the mental state that's the biggest factor in his regaining form."

What has been pleasing about Mendis’ new-found lease of life in international cricket is his confidence at the crease. The self-confidence seems to have stemmed from two brilliant knocks against Bangladesh in T20s - a 27-ball 53 and a 42-ball 70. Known for his flashy style of batting, Mendis took it a step further when he went about playing a slew of confidence-boosting ramp shots.

He has taken that kind of energy into Test cricket and at the moment seems like Sri Lanka’s sole ray of hope in the second Test at Gros Islet. Angelo Mathews has returned home to Sri Lanka due to personal reasons, which further puts onus on Mendis to stand tall against a Windies attack growing in confidence.

With Dimuth Karunaratne not making the tour due to injury and Mathews now gone, Sri Lanka sorely lack experience on this away tour. What could keep them going, though, is tough-to-crack knocks like the one at Port of Spain. Kusal Perera's inability to kick on from the top hurts Lanka but with Mendis appearing stable, they have hope.

His captain, Dinesh Chandimal, would be another key figure in the line-up. The skipper had been lavish in his praise for Mendis after he took to the new role with aplomb.

“Before this tour, Mendis hasn't played much as an opener," Chandimal had said after Mendis’ success against Bangladesh. "He played a couple of matches as an opener at the very start of his career, and after that he batted at 3 and 4. On this tour, we had a chat we thought that he was a suitable opener, and we can get the right-hand/left-hand combination at the same time. I think he grabbed all the opportunities. That was really good. Now, there is so much competition in our team. That's a really good sign."

So far the signs have been ominous. But to salvage his team from the state they are in, he needs to score more than mere hundreds. From Sri Lanka's perspective, he is their saviour in this Test side and needs to live up to that very reputation to challenge this ever improving West Indies side.


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