Sri Lanka in Bangladesh 2013-14 January 25, 2014

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shamalka on January 27, 2014, 7:06 GMT

    Mathews atleast top scored in the UAE series and became the man of the series as Captain. What did Chandimal is doing as v.captain in the test & the 1 day team? And as the captain of the T20 team? Let's talk about him as well! Cricinfo please publish!

  • syed on January 27, 2014, 6:26 GMT

    Losing or Winning is a part of a game but surely negative approach and mindset should not be the part of the game. Every match should be played with same intensity of winning it, otherwise after winning the series there should be no matches played.

  • joseph on January 27, 2014, 5:11 GMT

    Atleast he has Jayawardene, Sangakara, Dilshan and Herath around there to lend a support. Is not captaincy thrusted on him? Otherwise SL needs to find peoples like GSMITH. In my observation, SL did not have new impact players like CAnderson, DMiller, Kohli, Faf, Bailey, Simmons to shoulder the responsibility. Looking forward for 96-2000 period SL's

  • Dummy4 on January 27, 2014, 0:08 GMT

    You cannot blame Mathews entirely for the debacle in the last test. Didn't he get advise from so many coaches, support staff and the senior players in the team, when the match was slipping away? It seems like Mathews has to face the music alone. true he is the captain who gets the credit or the flak. I am yet to see that the coaches or seniors like Sanga or Mahela made any comments on the defeat and took a team stance. All in all credit to Mathews for coming through this mostly his critiques from his own country. Good luck SL

  • Jon on January 26, 2014, 23:02 GMT

    A nice balanced article. I like Matthews as a cricketer and he will learn a lot from the UAE third test. No doubt he had a tactical shocker but he will take lessons, grow and learn. Tactical captaincy does not come naturally to many, I think Cook, Matthews, Misbah, Dhoni and Smith all favour a conservative approach. It is easy to say from the commentary box that the captain should attack at any moment but when it is your team and the results will fall solely upon you it is not so easy. A good cricketer and I hope one day he will turn into a good captain. Time is on his side.

  • Chatty on January 26, 2014, 20:09 GMT

    While I was critical of Mathews's risk aversion earlier, I must add that this is not just his fault. Mahela, Sanga - they are both like that too, even more so given their far greater experience. I just don't see great captaincy material among the current lot. SL needs a Virat Kohli type personality - a young talented man who is a bit cocky and a bit over confident - when such people mature, they can become great leaders. Mathews is hugely talented, no doubt. I have a feeling that he is confident in his ability too, although it is not clear to the viewers. A captain needs to show his confidence overtly, so that it rubs on others as well.

  • Josh on January 26, 2014, 16:26 GMT

    I think Mathews is doing very well as a captain. Sure, he is not prone to ego-boosting on-field theatrics, provocative punchlines or assertive one-liners, but he sure knows his cricket and has all the characteristics of a great captain in the making. Mathews is being very clever and in not rocking anybodies boat, is doing the best for his career and also the future of SL cricket.

  • Varnendra on January 26, 2014, 14:39 GMT

    Matthews is unacceptably slow. In ODI's too he takes a long time to get going. These are symptoms of aged sportsmen? Matthews has gone old! Drop him. Jayawardena too has become very slow; drop him.

  • helitha on January 26, 2014, 13:04 GMT

    this is not a specific issue of mathews. sri lanka is definitely missing there aggression in the field. i do think that it was a result due to the management and the coaching staff and the method of team management has a definite influence in this defensive approach of our players. if you look at the player like mathews, chandimal etc. they all came as naturally aggressive players. but while they have been a part of the squad all the things have been changed around. i dont know how we can define it as maturity. if he is a aggressive player, team management should not change the mentality of them. result of that now sri lankans are lack of aggression. i hope that the god will help us to keep kusal equals to kusal. and kusal should be include in the test playing 11 if sri lankans want to win test matches just like aussies working with warner. but regarding the answer mathews given about the icc problem, i think he done it smart. :) anyway good work andrew. nice article. keep it up.

  • Ranil on January 26, 2014, 11:16 GMT

    Of course his tactics failed this time & we lost. However take the overall performance by Mathews as a captain during the whole series; because of him only we escaped defeat in the first Test & he was instrumental in winning the second. He was the MOS! It is said Mahela was not in the field at the time;was it because Mathews was not listening to his advice, so left it to Mathews to do on his own or Mahela just wanted to save his skin in a sinking ship?Those two seniors should be more involved with decision making & what about Hashan,Marvan ,Vass etc, do not they send ' advice in drinks'.When runs were leaking was Mathews not given advice on defensive tactics etc??Hashan was a very defensive chap as a captain, was there any involvement of him here??

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