Colombo:The performance of 23-year-old Sri Lankan spinner Ajantha Mendis during the first two Tests against India has excited cricket circles in Colombo and he is being hailed as the successor to world record holder Muttiah Muralitharan.
Mendis mesmerised the Indian top order, claiming 18 wickets in the two Tests - eight in the first and 10 in the second - a record for a Sri Lankan debutant. He was the perfect foil for Muralitharan, who himself claimed 16 wickets in the two Tests, his 11 in the first winning him the Man of the Match award.
"Ajantha bowled beautifully. All the hype and concentration was on the young bowler and that sort of helped Murali to prove that he's a class act. I am really happy for Ajantha. He has humble beginnings and I am glad he's gone on to create such an impact at the very start," Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardene said.
The man Mendis is tipped to take over from, Muralitharan himself, heaped praise on the rookie.
"He's one of the most talented guys I have seen. He's our future," the 35-year-old veteran said.
"When I started way back in 1992, I could bowl only the off-spin. Although I was a bigger turner, he has more variations," Muralitharan said.
"I was thinking of playing till the World Cup. But now that Ajantha has come, I can play for a few more years. It's not a joke, I am serious. With Ajantha bowling at the other end, my work load will be reduced. Bowling 50 overs every innings is no joke. It's a huge task. If I can bowl 30-35 overs, I will be happy with that as I am ageing."
Mendis, who played for Sri Lanka Army in the domestic competition in Division Two, single-handedly helped his club to qualify for the top division this year.
The selectors deserve to be complimented for making an exception and picking him when he had not even played top division cricket.
He also managed to bypass the Sri Lanka 'A' team, another exception for a young cricketer. Sri Lanka's director of coaching Jerome Jayaratne said his selection to the national side was rare.
"I would say his selection was unique. The credit should go to Ruwan Kalpage (the former Test spinner and a coach at SLC). It was Ruwan who alerted me that there was this guy, who was special. We took a look at him and then he bowled to the Sri Lankan players at the net. Kumar Sangakkara missed the first ball and he was bowled off the second," Jayaratne recalled.
"So we realised he was special talent and fast-tracked him. He responded well and I hope he will go on to achieve greater things for Sri Lankan cricket," Jayaratne told IANS.
Mendis joined the army two years ago on a three-year contract to play cricket for them and he was recruited as a gunner. Following his match-winning performance in the Asia Cup final, he got a double promotion and was made second lieutenant.
"We spotted him when he was playing school cricket. Then we recruited him and we are absolutely thrilled with what he has achieved," Major General V.R. de Silva, the president of Sri Lanka Army Cricket Club, told IANS.
His commitment to the army has also impressed many. The day after returning from a gruelling Asia Cup competition, Mendis came to play in the inter-regiment cricket tournament and won the best player of the tournament award.
Mendis comes from a strong Catholic family from Moratuwa that has produced other Sri Lankan greats like Duleep Mendis and Romesh Kaluwitharana. Anselam Fernando, a scorer at Sri Lanka Cricket, believes that Mendis has come to prominence because of the prayers of his devout mother.
"She is a God fearing lady and gets involved in a lot of charities. Ajantha has become a household name in a fortnight's time and all I can say is that his mother's prayers have been answered," Fernando said.
Mendis' younger brother is at the national seminary in Kandy studying to be a priest and will be ordained in three years.