Kusal Mendis rises above cauldron of gloom

Sri Lanka v India, 2nd Test, SSC, 3rd day August 05, 2017

A series victory over Australia that put the island on a one-month high; a South Africa tour so disastrous, self-immolation seemed less painful than watching it; a record ODI chase against India at the Champions Trophy; a resplendently comic fielding performance against Pakistan - such has been Sri Lanka's last year.

Transition, if that is still what we are calling it, is supposed to be this lukewarm, intermediary stage. Sri Lanka, however, have lurched at light-speed from calamity to success and back again, winning incredible T20s in Australia, losing spiritlessly at home to Zimbabwe, making wrecks out of their fans, and maybe their fanbase as well - so frequently have the losses come in recent months.

One player, however, has been a consistent source of joy. Think of Kusal Mendis as the box of jewels the burglars didn't ransack. The one fledgling banyan the deforesters did not chop down.

Let us go through those happy Sri Lanka memories of the past 13 months. When they overcame an 86-run deficit to defeat Australia in Pallekele, it was 21-year-old Mendis, who, with the kind of transcendental innings that even good batsmen strive for all their lives, transformed that game, and as it would turn out, that series. When Sri Lanka crushed Australia inside two-and-a-half days in Galle, there was Mendis hitting the game's highest score again.

This year, who played the definitive innings in the Test victory against Bangladesh? Mendis. Who top scored when Sri Lanka ran down India's 321 for 6 at The Oval? Mendis. Who has more ODI fifties than any Sri Lanka player in the last year? Which batsman looked the most fluent in South Africa? Who has been the one clear discovery from Sri Lanka's "transition" years, while more experienced batsmen have had their outside edges repeatedly assaulted, and seen their averages go into retreat? Mendis, Mendis, Mendis. He has been the driftwood to cling to in the shipwreck of Sri Lanka's recent run.

There have already been suggestions that Mendis is a 10,000-run batsman, and based on Saturday's evidence, there may be few to argue against that. In his innings was the fusion of ambition, skill and temperament only available to the very best. On a pit viper of a track, he broke the chokehold India's spinners had imposed. He had slapped R Ashwin for consecutive fours while fresh at the crease, cracked four fours off five Ravindra Jadeja deliveries not long after, and in his effervescence, pushed several India fielders out to the boundary for the first time in the game.

That the ball was leaping out of the surface like it had been shot out of an underground cannon only makes Mendis' ferocious sweeping more remarkable. He kept nailing them flat and hard through square leg, fielders on the boundary often only good for fetching the ball after it has stung the boundary board. Seven of his 17 fours he achieved with that shot - eight if you count the reverse sweep that went backward of point.

The clever touches that make coaches squeal and swell fans' hearts were sprinkled lavishly all through this knock. Where Dinesh Chandimal had earlier been caught at square leg trying to sweep, Mendis constantly ensured his bat came down over the top of the ball, so that if he mis-hit it, the ball would hit the ground, rather than shoot up to be caught by a close fielder. The risk in sweeping as he did was that an under edge could perhaps wangle its way into his stumps. But then, maybe that was a hazard Mendis himself had considered, and chosen to ignore. There are no safe options on bad pitches - the best you can do is choose the least perilous one.

All three Mendis Test hundreds have been of outstanding quality, though in the final wash-up, this one is unlikely to mean much to the team. Having collapsed with almost admirable efficiency in the morning, Sri Lanka still need 230 runs to make India bat again.

But even in this depression-inducing series, Mendis has now scored runs. As long as he does that, Sri Lanka's hope floats.

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