It hasn’t been easy being Kusal Mendis

Imagine the scene. You’re the captain. A captain who had been thrust into the role a couple of matches into a World Cup. And your team? They have just lost two games on the bounce. Actually, five of the last seven. The latest one was against India – a perfectly in-sync, cricketing destroyer of worlds. In that, your team was not just routed, but ground into the Wankhede dust.

What’s worse, it’s the second straight game against them in which your side has suffered such a humiliation. The memes make themselves, the social-media trolls are on a tear, and even the fans – hesitant to accept the undoubted superiority of this Indian juggernaut – reach the only conclusion they can: your team is rubbish. And they are not afraid to let you know it.

With all this swirling between your ears, you tune out the world. Stay away from the socials, as the kids say. Focus on the job at hand. Which, at this point, happens to be a media briefing in front of the world’s cricket media, ahead of a game that is a must-win for your side. Addressing the media isn’t really your thing either, English a very second second-language.

And so you sit, expecting questions about your next opponents, translating the questions from English to Sinhala and the answers from Sinhala to English in your head, just to try and exude a positivity that you’re not even sure you feel. And suddenly, somebody asks you a question… about congratulating Virat Kohli on his 49th ODI century. You’re bemused at first: have they come to the right presser? And then it all comes rushing back – the memes, the trolls, the abuse, the absolute mockery in your mentions tag.

And so you blurt out: “Why would I congratulate him?” Laughing all the while. This is a Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh pre-media press briefing after all, why are they asking about Kohli?

Well, Kusal Mendis soon found out. Angering Sri Lankan fans is one thing, angering their northern neighbours quite another.

“After that I copped a lot of abuse. Everyone knows how good a player Virat Kohli is so, yeah, I probably should have wished him at that time,” a reflective Mendis said on Sunday, as he provided rare insight into the mindset of a player who is often on the verbally economical side.

“That day we went first for practice, after which there was the presser. The day after was the Bangladesh game. When I went there I had no idea how much Virat Kohli had scored, all I knew was that there was a game. So when I was asked that question, I was initially confused because this was a media conference with regard to Bangladesh-Sri Lanka game. But looking back I know I was probably wrong in how I reacted, because scoring 49 centuries is no easy feat. As a batter, I know how difficult that is, but at that point I wasn’t really clear on what was being asked.”

Matter closed then? Yeah… for now. See, for Mendis, this isn’t new at all.

A Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year and Under-19 World Cup captain, fast-tracked into the national side, and one that within a year of debuting for Sri Lanka had struck 176 on the way to a rare Sri Lanka Test series win against Australia. Mendis was living the dream.

But this was a Sri Lanka side post-2014 and the batting had already begun its downward trajectory following the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Barely out of his teens, Mendis was hardly the polished final product, but Sri Lankan cricket and its adoring public was crying out for a new hero. And that knock against Australia certainly fuelled the flames of expectation.

So when the eventual troughs in form did arrive, Mendis became a lightning rod for criticism – particularly social media, where much of the discourse had begun to shift.

“As far [as] the stuff that’s being posted on social media, when we’re doing badly is when we need the most support. If a player is doing badly, if you can post some encouragement that would be better,” Mendis said. “A few years ago, this exact same thing happened to me, where I suffered a lot of abuse online. As a young player, growing in the game, it causes a lot of hurt. And it’s very difficult to recover from that. Sometimes, even when I’m on the road, I’ve heard people say things behind my back.”

“We never go into a match looking to lose, we always play for the country and ourselves. We’re always looking at how to win. So my humble request to the fans is that they support us as much as possible”

Kusal Mendis

In the case of Mendis, though, many may find it difficult to feel sympathy. In 2020, he was involved in a motor accident in which a 64-year-old cyclist was killed. The matter was closed after a settlement. A year later, he was one of three cricketers banned for breaching bio-bubble protocols when Sri Lanka toured England.

But, upon his return from that ban, Mendis discovered some of the best form of his career, and now has been entrusted with the captaincy – for however long that may be.

He has also been refreshingly forthright about the pressures surrounding the role, going into detail about his slump in form since taking over the ODI side – prior to that he had struck 76 and 122 against South Africa and Pakistan respectively.

“In the South Africa game, it was hard for me to play my normal game, which is to play a few balls first and get in [because Sri Lanka were chasing 429 for victory]. So what I tried to do was see how I could score quick runs. That made a difference in the first game, so in the second game [against Pakistan], along with the momentum from the first game and the practice matches, I was able to continue in the same vein.

“But that’s not my game. So after that, when I was made captain, I do think the pressure might have gotten to me because I am human. I wasn’t expecting to get the captaincy, so when you look at my game after that, I felt that I couldn’t play in the same manner as the earlier games.

“In terms of captaincy alone, I didn’t feel all that much pressure. I only really felt the role once I went on to the field, but there I received a lot of help from my team-mates. When I went out to bat, I didn’t think much about the captaincy initially, but after losing the first two games and then knowing the team needed to win… I think that along with the captaincy perhaps impacted how I approached my game. But I want to clarify I don’t feel a lot of pressure from the captaincy itself.”

And now he has used his position to speak out on the epidemic of abuse athletes across sports suffer.

“It’s very difficult to get up when you fall,” he said. “We never go into a match looking to lose, we always play for the country and ourselves. We’re always looking at how to win. So my humble request to the fans is that they support us as much as possible. There are videos of our players getting wickets, videos of our batters scoring runs – share those. And just try and spread some positivity in difficult times like this.”

With discussion around mental well-being increasing each day, Mendis’ request should be something fans – and others – should try to get behind. It’s not too difficult.

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