During the press conference following the conclusion of the first day of the second Test against Ireland at Galle, Piyal Wijetunga, the national spin bowling coach of Sri Lanka had no qualms throwing his 11-Test-old protégé Ramesh Mendis under the bus for his poor show in the first innings. What was even more concerning was his passing reference to remodeling Ramesh’s action that smacked of unaccountability. The off-spinner’s grip has changed significantly under Piyal’s aegis, but I was reluctant to complain given my lack of expertise in spin bowling. However, since the coach is now ready to pass the buck on to the youngster, I think it is only right we question his competence as the spin-bowling coach.
What immediately stood out about Ramesh Mendis in the first season of the LPL in 2020 was the amount of turn he got for a finger spinner. His 17 overs in that season went for only 7.06 runs per over and, surprisingly, he was more economical against right-handers than left-handers, which is an antithesis to the conventional wisdom. His accuracy was also less of a problem as a finger spinner who isn’t accurate is less likely to be economical in T20s. The following year, making his debut in Tests, Ramesh immediately impressed against Bangladesh and the West Indies and promised to be a long-term off-spin option for Sri Lanka. He imparted more revs on the ball than anyone else had in Sri Lanka’s recent history and manifested the attendant merits of giving the ball a good rip, namely drift, dip, and massive turn and bounce off the pitch.
However, in 2022, there was an ostensible dip in the number of revs he was imparting and the turn he was getting as a result. Although one can’t be critical of him for not picking up wickets on the docile pitches of Bangladesh earlier that year, his inability to pick up wickets against Australia and Pakistan at Galle intimated something was amiss.
So, what went wrong? The answer could be in his change of grip. Ramesh Mendis’ original off-spin grip was a little unconventional as he used his thumb along with his index finger to spin the ball. He bowled with this grip against both Bangladesh and the West Indies in 2021 and was very successful with it. However, against Australia in 2022, his thumb was no more in contact with the ball as he released it, making his new grip more conventional.
Now, it is natural to wonder what could go wrong by adopting a widely accepted grip. After all, one can only gain by swearing by the coaching manual, can’t they? Well, we only need to take a look at the end result to know why it was a bad idea.
You can see a definite decline in the number of revolutions Ramesh is imparting on the ball with the more conventional grip compared to his original grip.
It is worth noting here that Ramesh is not the only spinner to have bowled with an unconventional grip. Most successful spinners have or have had grips that deviate significantly from what is considered conventional. Simon Harmer, the celebrated county off-spinner, uses his thumb to spin the ball just like Ramesh. Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the third-best Test spinner ever, uses the second knuckle of his middle finger to spin the ball and so did England’s Graeme Swann even though most coaches advise using the first knuckle. Sri Lanka need not look far as even their very own Muralitharan bowled with a freak action and that didn’t hold him back from becoming the highest wicket-taker in Tests.
It’s not known why Piyal wanted to change a grip that brought Ramesh success in his first LPL and his first year in Tests. If he wanted to improve his accuracy, needless to say, it hasn’t produced the intended result. Was he trying to turn Ramesh into a verbatim text-book style spinner with the perfect grip and action for the sake of it? Or was he trying to fix a major issue in his bowling by remodeling his action and grip? If it is the latter, has his remodeled action and grip effectively addressed the issue?
Whatever the reasons might be, Ramesh is not Piyal’s only victim. Praveen Jayawickrama, a slow left-arm spinner who made his debut in 2021, seems to be struggling to settle on a bowling action as he seems to have gone through three different actions in as many years since his debut.
It should be pointed out that both Ramesh and Praveen, although not entirely accurate, spun the ball more and had greater success in their debut year. What is even more important to note is that Piyal wasn’t the spin bowling coach when they made their debuts. However, since his return to the coaching setup, we can clearly see a deterioration in both the amount of spin they get and their accuracy. Moreover, although there is no discernible change in Lasith Embuldeniya’s action, the lanky left-arm spinner has also gone south since making his debut. When three young spinners lose their way after entering the national setup, one cannot help but question the spin-bowling coach’s competence.
However, potentially ruining the careers of Ramesh, Praveen, and Embuldeniya is not the only complaint on his charge sheet. Piyal has been Sri Lanka’s spin-bowling coach since 2008 save for a brief period of exile between 2019 and 2021. During his stint, Sri Lanka have not produced a single wicket-taking spinner who could genuinely spin the ball. Sri Lanka’s decline in Tests at home in the post-Murali era is very much down to the absence of wicket-taking spinners. Even though Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera arrested the free fall to an extent and provided some buffer, neither of them spun the ball big nor could run through batting lineups unless the pitch offered them prodigious turn.
Nevertheless, it is not right to lay the blame entirely at Piyal’s feet alone since the Sri Lankan first-class system is notorious for producing garden-variety left-arm spinners who hardly spin the ball but pick up wickets in huge heaps thanks to the substandard pitches. However, more than a decade as the national spin bowling coach is a long enough time to at least raise concerns about the quality of the spinners produced, if not take actions to resolve them. Moreover, if fast bowling coaches can scout for good fast bowlers, who are the rarest breed in Sri Lanka, and turn them into international-class bowlers, then Piyal cannot complain much.
Besides, Sri Lanka until the arrival of Wanindu Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana struggled to produce a decent shorter-format spinner since Muralitharan’s retirement so much so that they went to the 2019 World Cup with Dhananjaya de Silva as the specialist spinner. Even then, Wanindu’s performance also seemed to be going down the slope since he came under the watch of Piyal as he took to bowling slow and flighting the ball too much. In fact, most Sri Lankan spinners are guilty of plying the old-school method of bowling spin in the shorter formats as opposed to the modern way of bowling flat and into the pitch at a high pace. Piyal seems to be stuck in an archaic era when it comes to his spin-bowling philosophy, and this has resulted in most Sri Lankan spinners struggling in the shorter formats.
Wanindu Hasaranga’s spin bowling coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore spoke of how he fixed the wrist spinner’s and run up and pace to make him more effective. I don’t know how someone who has an obsession with making wholesale changes to spin bowlers’ actions could miss something as simple as an issue with the run-up. Maheesh Theekshana also came back as a better spinner after his stint with Chennai Super Kings, bowling a lot quicker, flatter, and into the pitch with subtle variations in pace. Both of Sri Lanka’s premier white-ball spinners seem to have improved following their IPL stints and we can’t help but question why Piyal couldn’t do the same.
During Piyal’s time as a coach, Sri Lanka have not only failed to produce good spinners, but the promising ones have also faded away after joining the national setup. To top everything off, if he is going to make wanton changes to a young spinner’s action and then blame the spinner for failing in the middle of a Test match, one has to question his professionalism. Furthermore, when a coach has managed to hold onto his position for well over a decade in a country that is infamous for its fleeting relationships with its coaches, one is made to wonder if he is backed by someone powerful. Whatever it is, it is high time that questions about his fitness for his role are raised and answers are sought.