With all eyes fixed on Varun Chakravarthy and his bag of tricks in the T20 World Cup, another mystery spinner from Asia, Maheesha Theekshana, could steal the spotlight from him, writes Sarah Waris.
You remember Ajantha Mendis. You remember the sliders and the off-breaks that wreaked havoc in the rival camp. You remember the carrom ball and the googly that made him one of the most lethal bowlers in his heyday, and how it was a joy to watch him in action. You remember how batters struggled against his variations that were coupled with precision and accuracy. You might also remember his stats in white-ball cricket: 152 ODI wickets at an average of 21.86 to go with 66 scalps in T20Is, where he averaged 14.42. And you will most definitely remember how the spinner faded into obscurity just six years after he bamboozled every team and every player that had faced him.
The life of a mystery spinner hinges on the determination to constantly improve one’s game and keep adding to the bag of tricks. The risk of having your variations unpacked has only increased in the modern age, in which there is more footage around than ever before, and no shortage of social media analysts ready to spot the difference and go viral. Over the years a number of exciting tweakers have arrived, impressed, and vanished, just like Mendis, leaving us in despair at the loss of a fine talent. But the arrival of every new entrant brings with it a sense of anticipation. Could they be the one? And even if they might not be around long-term, the possibility remains of a bright and brief flash of light, enough to ignite a world tournament or a marquee Test series.
Maheesh Theekshana bowled just one over against the Netherlands on Friday but did not fail to leave his mark. Starting off with a googly, the 21-year-old then sent down an off-break before snaring the wicket of Ben Cooper with a well-disguised carrom ball that rattled the batter’s middle-stump. He got another wicket just two balls later, again with a carrom ball, Stephan Myburgh unable to read the line of the delivery. He managed to beat new batter Bas de Leede with a ball that spun away before walking off the field with side pain. Yes, it can be argued that the rivals were not the strongest, but as the player continues his rapid rise in international cricket, the promise he offers is immense.
Theekshana has played a total of seven international matches, including a lone ODI, picking up 13 wickets across formats. Selected primarily for the T20Is against South Africa last month, skipper Dasun Shanaka risked playing the bowler in the ODI series-decider at Colombo, a move that reaped instant rewards. From the first ball that he bowled, Theekshana was right on the money. He tempted Janneman Malan to go after a wide delivery before trapping Heinrich Klaasen LBW with an unreadable carrom ball. He proceeded to take two more wickets to end with 4-37, the best figures by a Sri Lankan on ODI debut.
The player has managed to weave his magic in T20Is since then, picking up nine wickets, including eight in the three T20 World Cup matches. Though he was slightly expensive in the series against South Africa where rain made its presence felt, on more helpful pitches in Oman and the UAE, Theekshana has been a revelation.
He can be effective in the powerplay overs and has picked up five wickets at an economy rate of under seven in the first six overs of an innings. His sliders skid off the wicket, and his googlies are bowled with a slower speed as compared to his off-break deliveries. His off-breaks do not have many revolutions, but the ability to mix in the carrom ball as well makes it difficult to gauge which variation Theekshana will bowl next.
Reading him from the hand and understanding his different grips for various deliveries might be the best way to negate his bowling, and no doubt analysts and coaches throughout the competition will be devouring the highlights to spot some sort of clue, but with unpredictable trajectory and speeds, the spinner will still be tough to face even if you can figure out which way it is turning.
His height allows him to get extra bounce, and he seems to be the perfect fit in what now looks a strong Sri Lanka spin attack. With world number two bowler Wanindu Hasaranga and fellow mystery spinner Akila Dananjaya also in the ranks, the likes Australia, England, South Africa, and West Indies — all in Sri Lanka’s group for the T20 World Cup — could face a few stutters. The fact that Sri Lanka plays three of their group matches in Sharjah, a spinners’ paradise of late, further makes them a team to watch out for.
Dananjaya made his debut in the 2012 World T20 after being spotted in the nets by Mahela Jayawardene, and helped drive a run to the final, only ended by Marlon Samuels’ heroics. Now he has been pushed out of the first XI by another mystery spinner, whose secrets are as yet uncracked. Sri Lanka know better than any other team the value of making the most of the resources available to them. Unveiling a new weapon on the eve of a tournament is a well-worn trick, but it could be an effective one.