Sri Lanka’s latest spin bowling talent, Balapuwaduge Ajantha Winslo Mendis — thankfully better known as Ajantha Mendis to cricket fans — is the latest bane of Indian cricket. After taking an astounding 17 wickets at an average of 8.52 in the Asia Cup tournament (24 June-6 July), Mendis went on to rattle the Indians again in the three Test matches that followed.
Deception: Mendis’ magic deliveries include one that looks like an off-spinner but spins to leg. Photoimaging: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Now christened the “Mystery Spinner”, Mendis has been praised for his variety of technique and unreadable delivery. But what has won him most acclaim, and column inches, has been his quirky “Carom Ball”, a delivery launched by a bent middle finger under the ball that makes the sphere skid and spit with venom. Mendis’ very first Test victim, Rahul Dravid, fell to a dreaded Carom Ball that pitched on middle and turned to kiss off stump.
“You cannot define Mendis under existing bowling categories as his fingers work differently to that of a regular leg-spin or off-spin bowler,” says Mahendra Mapagunaratne. Mapagunaratne, a lawyer in Toronto and a global cricket evangelist instrumental in taking the game to several new countries, is credited with coining the term Carom Ball.
Mapagunaratne says he came up with the phrase on a cold March evening this year. “I wondered why no one had detected the similarity in his finger-work to that of a carom player.” The term has now become as ubiquitous as Mendis in the global cricket media.
But the Carom Ball is by no means a Mendis invention. Indeed the bent finger technique is somewhat of a cricket enigma. Before the Sri Lankan wunderkind, Australian John Gleeson used a similar technique through a career that lasted 29 Test matches between 1967 and 1972. But the real credit for the technique must go to yet another Australian, John Iverson who, in a brief career comprising just five Test matches, left a lasting impact on the game.
Iverson perfected his technique while serving with the Australian army during World War II. Veteran cricket journalist Gideon Haigh believes that Iverson’s technique developed from a nervous childhood habit of spinning a table tennis ball with his middle finger. “By the time Iverson went to war as an ack-ack (anti-aircraft) gunner,” Haigh explains, “the finger had become prodigiously strong, and in games of French cricket that he and his comrades played using a ping pong ball and a ruler, he found he spun the ball enormous distances: He coiled the finger beneath the ball, held it in place with the base of the thumb, then flicked it out as though in a game of marbles.” Haigh is also the author of a popular 1999 biography on Iverson — Mystery Spinner: The story of Jack Iverson.
On returning to Australia after the war, Iverson’s ingenuity would prove devastating on the cricket field. In just five years from 1946 to 1951, Iverson went from signing up for a local cricket team to being picked for the Australian Ashes team that toured England in 1950-51. Australia swept the series 4-1 and Iverson picked up 21 wickets at an average of just 15.24.
Haigh explains, “Iverson’s hand at delivery looked like a leg-spinner’s, but his stock ball was a wrong ’un. Players brought up traditionally struggled to adapt to such a heterodox idea.” This technique, combined with accuracy and the strength from having worked as a farmhand in his youth, made Iverson a huge force on the field and a star off it. Several younger players, including John Gleeson, would be inspired by Iverson’s Ashes performance. But a poor series of domestic matches in the 1951-52 season killed his confidence and Iverson never played a test for Australia again.
The concept of the Mystery Spinner — Mendis is just the latest one — has always entranced cricket. But few of these stars have used their mystery to produce long careers. Shane Warne and Mutthiah Muralitharan are rare examples of cases where, as Haigh puts it, the mystery may have been temporary but the mastery remained. Other such as Iverson and Gleeson shone briefly and then flared out, batsmen having decoded their techniques.
Cricket enthusiasts, however, will hope that both the “bent finger” and the Mendis phenomena will sustain. The former, Haigh believes, is a challenge: “It’s very, very difficult. Even Gleeson struggled with it. I’ve discussed the ball with (Shane) Warne. He told me that his coach, Terry Jenner, had tried to develop an Iverson-style ball, but Warne could only bowl it over 11 yards.”
As for Mendis, sustainability itself is the true test of his ability. With YouTube videos already analysing his delivery in slow-motion detail, Mendis will need to keep innovating and thinking. Mapagunaratne says, “There may come a time when Mendis would be unravelled. The onus is on him to be a step ahead of the batsmen. His partner-in-crime Muralitharan is a fine specimen of a bowler who has evolved.”
Fans, meanwhile, will fervently hope that spin bowling has finally got a finger-spinner for keeps.