by Nirgunan Tiruchelvam
When Duleep Mendis was a boy in Moratuwa, his family employed a servant boy. The servant boy’s duties were not restricted to serving the drinks. He used to bowl to the podi mahathaya (little master) Duleep Mendis.
The servant boy was a fearsome fast bowler. He was known as the Andy Roberts of Moratuwa. Mendis’s reflexes were sharpened at a young age.
Some years later, Duleep Mendis blasted 32 against Australia at the Oval in the 1975 World Cup. Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillle were bowling at the speed of light. But, the tiny Mendis batted with just a cloth cap and pads. He hooked and cut with astonishing power. Much of his skill was mastered in the many hours of practice in his garden. He never forgot his sarong-clad domestic worker.
The Andy Roberts of Moratuwa is now unheard of. Even Mendis’s heroic deeds on the pitch are a faint memory. None of the current players have ever watched him. But, Mendis’s memory will live long as a fine manipulator.
As a player, his somersaults off the pitch were better than on the pitch. In 1982, Mendis shamed the country. He signed a contract to join the rebel tour to South Africa.
South Africa was then under the grip of Apartheid. Coloureds had third class status. Having signed the contract, he reneged on the tour in the last minute. His employer talked him out of it. As a carrot, he was offered the captaincy of what was left of the Sri Lankan team by the board.
But, Mendis was a captain only in name. The manager Abu Fuard ran the team as an absolute dictator. Field placements were directed from the dressing room. Mendis had no say in selections. Journalists used to know the eleven before he did.
Even the umpires were said to be under Fuard’s thumb. It was rumoured that during the 1985 series against India that the umpires used to attend team meetings. There was one particularly shocking incident which symbolized the tour. The Indian opener K Srikkanth was ruled LBW by the head Umpire. Seconds later, the leg Umpire raised his finger ruling him run out.
After Mendis lost the captaincy in 1987, he hung around in the team for a long time. He extended his career till the public were sick of him. Not many people remember that he retired after Ranjan Madugalle. By the late 80s, Mendis’s hand eye coordination was in terminal decline. The savage square cut deserted him. Overweight and unloved, the great man cut a sorry figure.
In the last 20 years, Mendis has held the posts of CEO, Manager and Chairman of Selectors. He has been able to convince many Boards of his unwavering loyalty. He has survived countless changes in Board administration.
His latest return as the Chairman of Selectors is particularly dramatic. Having been dismissed as the Board CEO two years ago, he has kissed and made up with the DS de Silva administration.
His first move was to appoint Dilshan captain. This must be applauded. Frankly, it was the only choice. Dilshan is an outstanding athlete, who favors instinct over reason. Sangakkara was far too defensive. His successor will be attacking. In his brief spells as captain, Dilshan was constantly in the ear of his bowlers. He belongs to the Shahid Afridi school of leadership.
But, Dilshan will not sing for his supper like Mendis in the 1980s. He will not be a figurehead. The new captain will lead from the front.
Sri Lanka’s ascent is a remarkable achievement for a small island. The success has come despite the Board’s incompetence. The Board can’t even ensure that the players turn up for the England tour. They are powerless in the face of BCCI’s clout.
The island has talent, but the selectors must go that extra mile to find it. Perhaps, Mendis should go back to where he started. His hometown has produced outstanding players like Ajantha Mendis, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Prasanna Jayawardene. The next Lasith Malinga may lurking in some garden in Moratuwa