Sri Lanka legend Kumar Sangakkara has lauded the ability of star batsman Kusal Mendis, conceding the young gun’s career is at a far more advanced stage than his own at the same age.
Mendis announced himself to the cricket world against Australia last August when, having passed 50 just once before in 13 Test knocks, struck a match-turning 176 after coming in with Sri Lanka two down and 80 runs behind in their second innings.
Then 21, the right-hander became the youngest Test century-maker in a decade and the second-youngest player to pass 150 against Australia.
But perhaps most significantly for a rebuilding Sri Lanka side, Mendis was two years younger than Sangakkara had been when he’d first notched triple figures in the longest format.
And he’d done it against the No.1 ranked Test team for an inexperienced side still reeling from the retirements of champion batsmen Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and Tillakaratne Dilshan.
While Sangakkara has recently admitted he has concerns over aspects of the national side’s progress, he says the likes of Mendis give him hope Sri Lanka can return to being a force in the Test arena.
“To the credit of these younger players, they have really stood out,” the 39-year-old told Cricbuzz.
“I saw Kusal Mendis, the way he batted against the mighty Australian attack last year was fabulous to watch.
“(That’s) something that I couldn’t dream of doing at that age or same stage of my career.
“The way Asela Gunaratne took onto the Australians in the T20 (series in February), the way Lahiru Kumara bowled with aggression in South Africa, Dushmantha Chameera, the way he bowled in New Zealand. Young Lakshan Sandakan, the way he bamboozled the Australians.
“I have got lot of enjoyment watching these young guys and that’s why I am very passionate about Sri Lankan cricket.”
When Sangakkara made his Test debut as a wicketkeeper in 2000 at age 22, he walked into a dressing room featuring a supremely experienced playing group.
Mercurial opener Sanath Jayasuriya was captain, Muttiah Muralidaran and Chaminda Vaas led the bowling attack while Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva were key figures in the middle-order.
Mendis meanwhile started his international career with captain Angelo Mathews and veteran spinner Rangana Herath the only senior figures in the Test side.
It’s a factor that makes Mendis’ rise even more impressive, according to Sangakkara.
“I was very lucky to walk into a side like that,” Sangakkara reflected.
“I kind of grew under the radar for a long time and the responsibility of being a match-winner was more on the big stars.
“I was allowed to slowly progress into my role.
“Guys like Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, and Lahiru Kumara in the fast bowing department are lot more exposed.”
While Sri Lanka haven’t had the silky services of Sangakkara during the Champions Trophy, the left-hander, who’s still plying his trade with English county side Surrey, dropped in on his former side ahead of their upset victory over India.
“Kusal met ‘Sanga’ to get some batting tips because he is the king,” revealed captain Angelo Mathews after Mendis struck 89 against the defending champions in the seven-wicket win.
“We all look up to him and take advice from him, all the batters. He taught us good things about how to play on these tracks.
“The guys met him, took a lot of advice and went out there and did it today.”
Despite Sri Lanka being eliminated by eventual champions Pakistan at the group stage, Sangakkara believes the national side is in safe hands with South African mentor Graham Ford.
“I am heartened by the fact that in Graham Ford we have one of the best coaches in the world,” he said.
“Anyone who has worked with him since the days South Africa were top of their game or to the Surrey boys, or to Kent, he has been the reason why so many young teams in transition – the word we use – have done so well over the years.
“Sri Lanka have the talent and they have the right man in charge. It’s time to allow them to freely go around doing what they can do.
“That is ‘Fordy’ to coach cricket and players to play cricket. If you let them be in charge of doing their jobs, without too much interference, it’s going to work.”