Sri Lanka’s Kamindu Mendis broke through as a prodigious ambidextrous spinner in the 2016 U19 World Cup. Eight years down the line, he is finally proving he is much more than just that, writes Naman Agarwal.

Subscribe to the Wisden Cricket YouTube channel for post-match analysis, player interviews, and much more.

As cricket evolves, players are finding ways to develop unique and exclusive skill sets that would give them the edge over their competitors. Teams around the world are ready to pay a premium to acquire these players and unleash them on their opponents till the mystery around their rare powers fades. Which is why when a 17-year-old spinner who could bowl with both hands and bat anywhere in the order announced himself to world cricket in 2016, there was immediate interest.

Sri Lanka has been the hub of innovation in the game. From the famous pinch-hitting partnership of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana in the mid to late 1990s to the legion of slingy action fast bowlers inspired by Lasith Malinga, cricket and cricketers have rarely been boring in the island nation. Kamindu Mendis’ arrival in the 2016 U19 World Cup was the latest case in point. He was not one, not two, but technically three players in one.

[breakout id=”0″][/breakout]

It took him all of two years to make his international debut, against England in a one-off T20I in October 2018. Jason Roy and Ben Stokes were at the crease when Mendis came on to bowl. In his first over, he switched hands thrice, bowling four deliveries with the right and two with the left. His three overs fetched 27 runs and the 14 balls he faced while batting fetched 24. World cricket had a new star in the making.

Next March, he made his ODI debut and played five white-ball games in South Africa. Strangely, however, the next two years he went missing from the international arena. The shelf life for mystery spinners is usually quite short, but was it this short for Mendis?


As much as fans wanted to pigeonhole him as an ambidextrous spinner who was handy with the bat, Mendis was never really that. His primary skill was batting and he was busy churning out the big runs in first-class cricket.

He got his first break in the longest format in 2022 when the Sri Lanka squad was hit by a bout of COVID-19 during the home series against Australia. Sri Lanka had lost the first Test by ten wickets and were losing players left, right, and centre to the virus. Dhananjaya de Silva, one of their most important middle-order players who lent solidity to the batting line up and balance to the XI, was one of them. To replace him, Sri Lanka gave Mendis a debut. Batting at six, he added a crucial 133-run stand with Angelo Mathews to take Sri Lanka past Australia’s total of 364 and lay the platform for a huge first-innings lead. Against a bowling attack that had Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, and Nathan Lyon, Mendis showed that he belonged. He made 61 and didn’t bowl. Sri Lanka won that game by an innings.

That should really have been the spiritual beginning of Mendis’ international career. But de Silva returned and Mendis couldn’t find a spot in the packed middle order for nearly two more years, until Sri Lanka toured Bangladesh. Even there, Sadeera Samarawickrama was slated to continue his role as the specialist wicketkeeper at No.7 before Sri Lanka had a change of heart. Perhaps a first-class batting average in the mid-sixties – the best for any Sri Lankan with 2,000 runs in the format – was getting too good to ignore.

Mendis repaid the faith on the very first day, arresting a collapse with the guy whom he had replaced for his Test debut and who was now captain. He counterattacked his way to his maiden Test hundred, before following it up with another in the next innings, becoming the seventh Sri Lankan to score centuries in both innings of a Test and the first batter from any country to do so while batting at No.7 or below.

With 367 runs from four innings, he is set to finish the series as the highest-scorer, having equalled, broken, and created record after record, and bowled only seven overs till day four of the second Test.

This is the real Kamindu Mendis, who averages 64.92 in first-class cricket, ninth-highest ever and fourth-highest among players to have played in this century. A class batter who has the game to shift gears and the temperament to make the most of a purple patch while also offering his team the luxury of an (okay, two) extra bowling option.

“I know it’s very difficult to get an opportunity because our Test team is very settled,” Mendis said after his maiden Test ton in Sylhet. “In the last couple of years I worked tirelessly to get to this point.”

Juggling between formats, batting positions (he has already batted at every position from No.3 to No.8 in 21 international innings across formats), and match-up based bowling roles, Mendis has taken a while to find his true calling in international cricket.

But cast him as a red-ball specialist at your own peril. He has also made a successful return to the T20I side this year, having scored an unbeaten 65 off 39 balls in his first innings back, against Afghanistan in February. He is most probably going to be on the flight to the Caribbean for the T20 World Cup in a couple of months time, and given his all-round abilities, it wouldn’t be extremely far-fetched to see him getting an IPL deal some time in the future as well.

However, it is important to not repeat the mistake of focusing on what he could be, something almost everyone who laid an eye on him eight years back has been guilty of. Instead, it’s time to celebrate him for what he is: a bloody good batter who can bowl (with both hands).