Saturday 10 January 2009

'Don't tell them other boogers...'

In the Observer last week, Nasser Hussain picked out Ajantha Mendis as one of the paper's 'New Stars' for 2009. It's an astute choice, as Mendis is still under the radar as far as the British media is concerned; more so after the cancellation of the planned two Test series with Sri Lanka at the start of the summer. 

Come the T20 World Championship though, expect 101 newspaper analyses of his mystical prestidigitation and of that mindbending T20 average of 5.00 and strike rate of 6.5. Everyone loves a mystery man.

Yesterday, I dug out my copy of Barry Richards' autobiography, The Barry Richards Story (nice title, marketing was altogether simpler circa 1978) a book that I used to read daily like the quasi-religious text that it was: Bad Bas held godlike status back then.

Dipping into the chapter on his four-Test career, he'd written this on John Gleeson, who, for a fleeting time, was the Mendis of his day: 'I only heard about his secret much later; the delivery that looked like a leg break was an off-spinner, while the ball you thought must be an off-break was a leg spinner. Once word got around, his mystery disappeared and he faded from the scene'.

Richards was never dismissed by Gleeson, who had nonetheless had arrived in South Africa with the aura of 'a magician... His secret lay in his unusual use of the middle finger, which he bent behind the ball; he could then flick the finger to either side to impart either off or leg spin'.

I doubt that Mendis's secret will be as easily unravelled as Gleeson's, although from the description above their techniques sound vaguely similar (as was the original mystery spinner's Jack Iverson's). The key to his longevity will lie not in his tricks, but in their effectiveness when everyone understands them. 

The chilling phrase for Mendis in Richards' description is 'once word got around'. In the age of analysis, nothing stays secret for long. Who will be the first to say they've picked him?

NB: Gleeson was the bowler at the centre of one of the most legendary of Boycott anecdotes: He was batting against Gleeson when Basil D'olivera came down the pitch and said 'Geoffrey I think I've worked him out'. 'I worked him out two weeks ago,' Boycott allegedly replied before gesturing at the dressing room, 'but don't tell them other boogers...' The reason I think this story is apocryphal is simply that running out of partners whilst batting would have filled Geoffrey with far more horror than having to help out some lesser players.


Jrod said...

I wrote a piece about Mendis when he first arrived and i compared him to Gleeson, but i used a more contemporary model in Paul Adam's who has a freakishly good record in India for a bowler of his talent, as it was before he was "worked out".

Also was in a press box around the time he came out, and every english journalist was talking about him, and i found it weird he was all but unheard of in the media.

And finally, my schooll library in melbourne had 3 cricket books, one on technique, one on bradman and the barry richards one you mentioned. Although all i ever remember from it was the Muhammad Ali story.

The Old Batsman said...

Yeah, from what little I've seen of Mendis, he doesn't seem to get freakish turn or bounce ala Murali/warne, so I wonder if he does get worked out how well he'll do.

I think the journos want to write about more than just the England side, but most editors just won't run it - might take up space they can fill with stories about football.

Parts of the Bas book make for quite alarming/uncomfortable reading now - he really did come out of south africa as a kid wondering why they were pariahs.