Kusal Mendis and the need to be patient with youngsters

Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images

Kusal Mendis once again finds himself in a territory he has been all too familiar with throughout his career. His recent performance has breached the tolerance point and there is a fresh social media campaign to oust him from the national team. Why does he get so much hate? Has the Kusal Mendis experiment gone a bit too far? What does this disillusionment with the erstwhile whiz kid and the attendant trolling say about the future of other Sri Lankan youngsters? This article attempts to answer these questions.

Before we begin, it should be acknowledged that Kusal Mendis has always been the favorite prey of online trolls and social media campaigns. But why is he the target of trolls? Is it because of his performance or, more accurately, lack thereof? Even though it is easy to assume so, there are more reasons than what meets the eye.

To begin with, his faith does not sit well with some of these trolls, who have made no bones about their hatred for players of the same faith. Mendis flaunting his lifestyle on social media has also elicited their envy while his rejoinders have infuriated them. But these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hatred stemming from the particularities of Mendis aside, the unrealistic expectations placed on Sri Lankan youngsters have also played a significant part. Sri Lankan fans often assume that they sit atop a motherlode of cricketing talents and refuse to accept the fact that their team is no longer a match for the top teams.  On the other hand, for most Sri Lankans, cricket is arguably the only source of accomplishment, and they expect cricketers to massage their nationalistic egos by winning. This absence of touch with reality in concert with rabid nationalism snowballs into unrealistic expectations on young cricketers, despite a poor domestic structure and management with antiquated ideas. When reality confronts them, they react by hating the cricketers with vengeance.

Protest against Born Again infront of Sri Lanka Cricket.
A placard carried during a protest against the Born Again ‘cult’ in front of the headquarters of Sri Lanka Cricket in 2021. The text ostensibly alludes to Niroshan Dickwella’s habit of crossing himself before every ball he faces. Source: Twitter

Nevertheless, we should not make the mistake of painting all critics of Mendis with a broad brush. There could be genuine fans of the sport who may want Mendis dropped for failing to repay the faith. So, has Mendis failed to produce returns on the investment?

First and foremost, we should not forget that Mendis is still only 28, and even though Sri Lanka have heavily invested in him, the investment is not impeccable. In his eight-year career so far, Mendis has had at least as many as 7 head coaches and 11 captains across formats. Such an unstable environment is detrimental to any young batsman trying to find his feet.

The flawed investment aside, it is erroneous to assume that there has been no return on the investment. In fact, the returns have started to steadily flow. In T20Is, Mendis is already one of Sri Lanka’s best batsmen, averaging 31 at a strike rate of 151.8 ever since he was allowed to open in the Asia Cup in 2022.

KC Sangakkara1292161191659.87
TM Dilshan3054220542.40
MS Atapattu82143539941.53
ST Jayasuriya90152593241.48
FDM Karunaratne88166654940.93
BKG Mendis3966251239.25
AP Gurusinha3965227539.22
NT Paranavitana3260179232.58
RS Mahanama5086253929.87
WU Tharanga2750145929.77
JK Silva3668201529.63
HDRL Thirimanne2751131926.38
Sri Lankan batsmen with a minimum of 50 innings in the top three in Tests sorted by their average.

In Tests, despite his recent performance having attracted criticism, Mendis is already the 6th best performer of all time for Sri Lanka in the top three, positions Mendis has occupied the most. Of the active batsmen, only Dimuth Karunaratne has done better. Besides, at home, only three batsmen average higher than Mendis since 2015.

FDM Karunaratne3667340051.51
LD Chandimal2953211445.95
DM de Silva2343167743.00
BKG Mendis2649189738.71
AD Mathews3666232038.03
N Dickwella2139114230.86
P Nissanka61030730.70
HDRL Thirimanne132469530.21
WU Tharanga81644027.50
BOP Fernando91433423.85
Sri Lankan batsmen at home in Tests with at least 10 innings since 2015 sorted by their average.

Furthermore, any criticism of Mendis that does not consider Sri Lankan batsmen’s struggle in the top three traditionally and at home since 2014, batting averages declining globally since 2015, and Sri Lanka having played more matches away from home than at home cannot be taken seriously.

Though Mendis’ apparent poor show in the World Cup Qualifiers recently has brought his place in ODIs into question, one should not forget that out of the 8 games he played, he did well in 2, did not bat in one, remained not out in 2, and failed only in three games. His critics also adduce his inability to play swing even though only three of his dismissals this year can be attributed to swing. Further, almost all Sri Lankan batsmen struggle against the moving ball and the white ball does not swing every game. Even if we assume that this is a concern, then we should see him struggle proportionally in T20Is as well, which we don’t see. Moreover, the corollary of this concern is that the opening partnership is also vulnerable against swing, so cherry-picking Mendis to criticize seems to be in bad faith.

Having said that, an average of 31.32 at a strike rate of 84.33 is not a real indicator of Mendis’ ability and he definitely needs to improve on it. However, we should also note that most Sri Lankan batsmen average in the low 30s or high 20s in ODIs and this includes the likes of Kusal Perera and Dhananjaya de Silva. With more time and the right approach, it’s not a stretch to expect a player who has cracked T20Is and done reasonably well in Tests to churn out runs in ODIs as well.

Moreover, Mendis also possesses the ability to hit both pace and spin in addition to his orthodox batting skillset. Such batsmen in Sri Lanka are few and far between and finding replacements for him is not going to be easy, if not impossible.

On that account, it is too early to pull the plug on Kusal Mendis. But what does this disenchantment with Kusal Mendis say about the future of other young Sri Lankan players? How long is too long to persist with a youngster?

The common consensus could be the decision to move on from a youngster should be taken after a certain number of matches. Although this may make sense for other teams, for Sri Lanka, this might not be the most sensible option. This is because players in Sri Lanka hardly get a stable environment and role clarity. They also have to do most of their learning on the job. As Trevor Bayliss once said, Sri Lankans are taught first-class cricket at the international level. Furthermore, players with skills such as power-hitting and express pace cannot be dropped so easily as such players are hard to find on the island.

On top of that, domestic performers are not always going to make an immediate impact at the international level as Sadeera Samarawickrama’s struggle against Pakistan recently and Kamindu Mendis’ lack of runs in the A-team series will tell you. Even if players make an immediate impact, the proliferation of video analytics means that a decline soon follows as every chink in their armor gets exploited, which means they have to reinvent themselves. It is a tough endeavor, even more so for Sri Lankans who hardly get any institutional support. Charith Asalanka, Pathum Nissanka, and Oshadha Fernando have all been through it despite starting their careers on a high note. That being the case, we can’t arbitrarily arrive at a number of games to be given to a player to prove himself.

Consequently, I would argue Sri Lankan youngsters should not be judged by how much time they have been given but by how much time they still have. Since age is the best indicator of time a player has, I would use the following rough, age-based framework to appraise the progress of a youngster. You pick a player with potential and back him until he turns 28 no matter what. Between 28 to 30, I would expect him to contribute regularly, between 30 and 32, to perform consistently and after 32, to lead from the front.

Assuming a player is picked in their early 20s, 28 not only gives him adequate time to cut teeth but, if he can play till 38, it also makes sure the team can reap the rewards for their investment for a long enough time. Anecdotally, the careers of Dimuth Karunaratne, Dhananjaya de Silva, and, to an extent, Dinesh Chandimal have followed a similar trajectory.

Mendis turned 28 this year and he has been amongst the runs regularly. He is already consistent in T20Is, has scored a fifty in every Test series since 2021 until the recent Pakistan series—including a more-than-a-run-a-ball 87 on a green mamba at Christchurch, and has done well in ODIs save for the series in India and New Zealand. Therefore, it is premature to even fathom dropping him.

The goal of the article is not to defend Mendis but to insist on the need to be patient with Sri Lankan youngsters. Playing musical chairs with players has not worked and will never work as the tenancy of Sanath Jayasuriya as the chief selector demonstrates. This is not to mean Mendis, or any youngster for that matter, will definitely succeed. They might very well end up failing. But that’s the price Sri Lanka have to pay for their poor domestic structure. But until such time as this is fixed, Sri Lankans have to continue showing faith in youngsters.