Safe Mathews could be more creative
If a man does not risk much in life, he cannot complain if his rewards are also feeble. As Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews prepares his men for a new Test series less than a week after their last one concluded, he will perhaps have had a moment to contemplate this truth. In Sharjah, his team had striven for safety above all else and found on day five they could not have travelled a more hazardous route. Though he had a monumental series with the bat in the UAE, Mathews knows his captaincy is still on trial, as he begins in Bangladesh.
If he has valued security in his 12 months at the helm, Mathews has had just cause to do so. He is by far the least experienced Sri Lanka captain since the early 80s, and the path of least resistance must appear tempting to a leader who does not yet have a forceful mandate to rule. In a year, Mathews has not caused obvious strife for the board, nor made startling selection calls. In public, he has been reserved - even bland. Sri Lanka is among the most difficult cricket teams to captain largely because numerous interests must be appraised off the field, but Mathews has negotiated his first year without major incident because his every move has been tempered by caution. Like he does in most innings, perhaps Mathews seeks to become accustomed to the nuances of his surroundings before venturing aggression.
He is also adhering to the script that had been laid out for him before he took the job. Mahela Jayawardene stepped down from the captaincy claiming it was time a young leader took charge while the senior players remained in the team - a sort of captaincy with training wheels with the adults running alongside to ensure no bones are broken - and Mathews has largely played the part, steering along a sturdy course as the wiser heads provide advice when they felt the team was veering off track.
It is a strange and awkward set of circumstances for Mathews to contend with, because as long as Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are around, he will never monopolise respect in the dressing room. As perhaps the third-best candidate to lead the side, he cannot impose himself on it as definitively as he might like, either.
And it is in imposing himself is where Mathews has been most lacklustre, both on the field - where pre-fabricated, cookie-cutter field settings have been his hallmark - and when speaking about his team's cricket. Challenging Mathews to take a strong point of view is an exercise in futility, most reporters have learned. Ask him what weaknesses he feels Sri Lanka can exploit in the opposition, and in response, a line about guarding against complacency and the class of the opposition is marched out. Ask him what he feels about any burning cricket issue of the day, and he will deflect the question, or defer it to some higher power.
Recently, Mathews was asked to speak on Prasanna Jayawardene's impact on the team, and though he began his reply with intent, claiming "Prasanna has the best hands…", he stalled as he measured the next phrase, then chose the conservative ending - "…going around". You sensed what he really wanted to say was "Prasanna has the best hands in the world" - certainly not an outrageous statement, given it has been uttered many times before (it is hard to get Sangakkara to stop saying it). It is also commonplace for players, particularly captains, to speak glowingly about team-mates, even when completely undeserved, which in this case, it is not.
Mathews' fear of doing and saying the wrong thing seems at present to be suffocating any desire to take a stand, be creative, or put himself and his team on the line. Ahead of the series against Bangladesh, he gave a typically vanilla statement on what he expects in the next four weeks. "Bangladesh have improved vastly in the past few years and we're not going to take them lightly at all. We're not going to be complacent. We're going to go hard at them, play positive and win."
There are signs Mathews can eventually grow into the kind of leader Sri Lankan require. As they lack a menacing attack at present, conservatism suits the team well, though they know now the perils of straying to negativity. Beyond his own batting, which appears to have benefited greatly by the responsibility, Mathews also coaxed calmness and dependability from his team-mates when he batted alongside them in the UAE. Dinesh Chandimal, Prasanna Jayawardene and Dilruwan Perera all made their best scores in the series in Mathews' company. There is no doubt Mathews has far to go tactically, but equally, there can be no question that as long as the seniors are unwilling to take back the reins, he is the best man to lead Sri Lanka.
Two days before the Dhaka Test, Mathews was asked what he thought of the proposals set to be discussed by the ICC board in a few days, and he led with "that's not for me to decide". His opposite Mushfiqur Rahim, who has played the same number of Tests as Mathews and is roughly the same age, instead delivered a fearless critique of the proposals - the first among current cricketers to do so. Mushfiqur has already shown strength and audacity on the tour. The next month will reveal if Mathews will shed his fear of failure and do the same.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here