How Kusal Mendis walloped Shaheen Afridi and Haris Rauf and why he went for a six on 94 against Pakistan

Whenever Kusal Mendis reaches the vicinity of a hundred, the idea of a six enters his mind. His childhood coach Jayanith Aponso, who died a few years ago, once explained the reason: “He happened to watch Aravinda reach the milestone with a six and since then, he always tries to hit a six to his hundred.” The trait has irritated his coaches and teammates over the years. “I used to tell him to take a single, and get to the hundred and then hit sixes,” the coach had then said. But Mendis would not listen. It was the only advice he did not heed to, at the Moratuwa Sports Academy on the suburbs of Colombo where he honed his skills.

His second highest Test score is 196; the third highest 194. Both times he perished slogging to the midwicket fence, and both times against Bangladesh. “I would try not to.” he said on the second occasion, in jest.

On 94 against Pakistan, he could not resist not being Aravinda. As Hasan Ali’s full ball seared into him, he crouched a bit, like a compressed spring, stabilised his base and with a fluid whirl of his wrists, smote him over mid-wicket. It was not a pure slog, or a standard flick, but a cocktail of both. From the thin strip of grass between two pitches, the one used for this game, and an unused one, he soaked the sight of the ball soaring into the stands. He kissed the badge on his shirt three times, tugged at it, and hugged his partner Sadeera Samarawickrama.

It was a moment lost in symbolism. Through much of Sri Lanka’s unending transition in the last decade, he was both the beacon of hope and symbol of rot. He was touted as his country’s best young batsman; few ever doubted it and he filed frequent reminders. Yet, he hopped along the highway of unfulfilled talent most often. Brilliant but inconsistent, blessed with a beautiful game but devising means to self-destroy. Perhaps, he was under too much pressure, too much expectation; perhaps the chaos of his country seized him; perhaps he was not enjoying the scary attention.

People wondered whether he would be just one of those feel-good stories. His father Ramesh was an aggressive batsman in age-group cricket in the late 1970s but was forced out of the game to provide for his family. He turned to carpentry before shifting to drive auto-rickshaws. So his son couldn’t handle sudden fame, unlike those from more affluent backgrounds. His social-media savviness made him a social-media meme-troll target too.

Festive offer

Some empathised with him. Marked as the torchbearer of Sri Lanka’s batting heritage in the post Kumar Sangakkara-Mahela Jayawardene could have been a crushing burden. Every semi-failure was counted as a disaster. Even 80s and 90s did not whet the appetite—to his blame, he has squandered numerous starts (26 half-centuries in ODIs, of those 11 scores between 75 and 100, but just two hundreds before this).

Such tendencies constitute coming of age phases. But it dragged on. In the backdrop, he was involved in a bad accident, was suspended for breaching bio-bubble protocol, had a chest-pain scare that turned out to be a muscle-spasm, axed, recalled, axed again and recalled again. It seemed like an unending cycle, like two estranged lovers falling in and out of love on a loop.

But from 2021, Mendis has been quietly reemerging, though without any defining reference point. He quit social media. He stopped reading newspapers. He burned his ego. He channeled all his energy to be as useful as he could be. “I have stopped worrying about what people are saying about me, I will be just thinking how I could help Sri Lanka win each and every game,” he would say during the Asia Cup. His cameos helped Sri Lanka claim the Asia Cup in 2022; he racked up a 245 against Ireland. But Ireland after all, would it matter?

But this hundred against Pakistan in the World Cup would matter. It’s the fastest hundred by a Lankan batsman in the World Cup. Off only 65 balls. Against Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf. The two most ferocious pacemen around. As if to prove a point, he saved the best for them, producing as harrowing an onslaught that they might have never experienced.

The assault of Afridi would begin with a wristy pick-up shot through mid-wicket. The paceman winced. The stroke was soaked in risk. Swiping across to a left-arm seamer from over the wicket. Followed a pull, a few balls later. But Afridi faintly smiled. He could bounce him out. And so he tried to in the next over. But Mendis would just keep climbing with the ball and standing on his toes wafted him over point. That was the precise moment Afridi and Pakistan felt deflated. As though someone had pricked an air balloon. So much so that Imam-ul-Haq grassed a straightforward catch on 18, off Mohammed Nawaz.

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Otherwise, Mendis dealt the spinners with utmost comfort, cutting and gliding them for occasional fours. He kept aside brutality for seamers. Babar summoned Rauf for one of his lung-busting spells. Mendis merely creamed him through midwicket. Rauf ended up costing 20 runs, and was taken off.

Throughout his assault he resembled not so much of Aravinda than Romesh Kaluwitharana. An upgraded refined version of the swashbuckling opener. Like him, he would get under the short ball and power them through the leg-side, those on the off, he would cut fearsomely. But he is technically sturdier, wristier and has a wider range.

A few overs later reentered Afridi, who he greeted with three fours in a row, all through the off side. He shifted his attention to Hasan Ali, of whose bowling he completed his hundred with that six and who he later attempted to hit a hat-trick of sixes. He failed in the third attempt. It did not matter. For he has scored a hundred that would matter. And with a six. Like Aravinda, his idol.

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