Anyone who has watched Kusal Mendis bat knows how talented a batsman he is. His 53-ball knock of 79 in the first T20I of the three-match series against New Zealand on Sunday was once again testimony of that.
But averages of 36.03 and 29.01 in Tests and ODIs respectively, tell a completely different story about him. These numbers suggest that he has been very inconsistent in the formats despite having impressed with some breathtaking knocks from time to time.
Although his T20I average of 21.65 is quite decent, it is still not good enough considering the lofty modern-day batting standards and how highly he is rated by pundits and former Sri Lankan legends like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
However, Mendis’ promotion to the top of the order in T20Is since last year has brought about a change in his fortunes. In a total of nine innings at the top of the order since 2018, Mendis has amassed 338 runs at an excellent average of 37.55 and an outstanding strike-rate of 156.48. All five of his T20I fifties have come in the space of these nine innings. In fact, he had only 95 runs in a space of 11 innings prior to his switch to the opening slot and, that too, at a dismal average of 8.63. So, these numbers sum up how one small tweak in his role has worked wonders for him and the team.
In fact, this experiment wasn’t limited to the T20I format only. Mendis was given the responsibility to open in the Test series against Bangladesh and West Indies towards the start of 2018 as well. And he came out with flying colours once again as he amassed 377 runs in just five innings, that too, at an excellent average of 75.40. It included two centuries, one of which was his career best Test score of 196. Surprisingly, the team management opted against persisting with him at the top of the order and, hence, he was forced to return to the middle-order once again. A tally of 936 runs at an average of 33.42 (at positions 3,4 and 5) in Tests since then clearly suggest that he isn’t quite cut out for the responsibilities of the middle-order.
He was asked to open in a couple of ODIs later in the year as well but consecutive ducks meant the experiment ended right then and there.
However, this is where the management missed the trick. Mendis’ success at the top of the order in both T20Is and Tests towards the start of 2018 clearly indicated that he could offer the team much more as an opener than he had as a middle-order batsman. But they lacked the vision to implement it as a permanent move. And they paid the price for it during the recently concluded World Cup as well.
The 24-year-old underperformed massively during the mega-event. He amassed only 143 runs at a dismal average of 20.42 during his seven outings. Mendis batted at No.4 during all his seven knocks and, thus, reiterated how he struggles to get going in this role. It looked like a responsibility that was shoved upon him rather than one that he had taken up willingly.
He plays way more freely at the top of the order. It allows him to play his strokes freely and bat without any pressure and fear. In fact, Mendis looks more adept in setting the platform for his team at the top of the order rather than building on to it as a middle-order bat.
There have been many instances over the years when players have found success after their switch to the top of the order. Virender Sehwag, Adam Gilchrist and Rohit Sharma are the most familiar names. In fact, Rohit is still going strong and is regarded as a limited-overs great at present. So, Mendis’ switch to the opening slot in all formats permanently could unleash the sleeping beast inside him.
The talent, potential and promise has always been there in him. Now, it’s up to the team management to utilize it properly. In fact, Mendis’ promotion to the top of the order holds the key to his and, to some extent, Sri Lanka’s rise to power in international cricket as well.