Calm Mathews proves his worth again
The ability to handle pressure is intangible. A cursory glance at Angelo Mathews' ODI career record shows an average close to 35, from 62 innings with ten fifties - decent returns for somebody who's in the side as a batting allrounder, but not usually at the top of the order. Those numbers don't indicate the number of occasions Mathews has had to bat with the lower order and tail, shepherding them around with a common-sense approach.
His captain Mahela Jayawardene summed it up after Mathews pulled off a heist of sorts with an unbeaten 80 at No.6 to guide Sri Lanka to a 3-1 series win against Pakistan at the R Premadasa Stadium. "He handles pressure better than anybody else I've seen," Jayawardene said.
It was a fitting compliment from someone whose task as captain is not just to lead the team on the field but also mentor the next generation, including his second-in-command Mathews. When the vice-captaincy was handed to Mathews after the World Cup, it could have been seen as a brave move, considering his injury record. Nevertheless, his big-match temperament must have impressed the management enough to start grooming him for the top job early.
Mathews ended up doing a lot more than was expected of him. A line-up that bats down to No.9 shouldn't have huffed and puffed to a target of 248. The seniors, including Jayawardene himself, were part of the reason the pressure piled on Mathews. Tillakaratne Dilshan couldn't produce the opening expected of him, Kumar Sangakkara made a start but took off for a single which didn't exist and Jayawardene fell to the softest of return catches. It was a test to see if the less experienced players could compensate for those failures.
Mathews walked in with Sri Lanka at 97 for 4, still needing just more than a run a ball. His task was not just to see to it that Sri Lanka kept pace, but also ease the pressure off Dinesh Chandimal, trying to work his way back to form. Mathews was unfazed when Umar Gul dished out bouncers, preferring to wait for the delivery that sat up to be hit.
The batting Powerplay was a turning point in the chase where Sri Lanka lost Chandimal, trying to clear the rope, and Thisara Perera as the result of a communication breakdown. Sri Lanka were starting to combust due to their own mistakes, and that threatened to overshadow Pakistan's numerous schoolboy blunders in the field.
Mathews preferred to maintain his wait-and-watch approach, milking the singles and trusting his partner Lahiru Thirimanne, batting in an unfamiliar position down the order. Mathews chose audacity over safety when he reverse-swiped Mohammad Hafeez over point and then scooped Mohammad Sami over fine leg, using the pace of the ball to clear the rope.
Jeevan Mendis' cameo of 19 gave Sri Lanka a marginal chance, but with 36 needed off 22 and no specialist batsmen to come, it was touch and go. Mathews had pulled it off before, in more trying circumstances in Melbourne in November 2010, when he had Lasith Malinga joining him at 107 for 8, chasing 240. The pair marauded runs in the batting Powerplay to entertain thoughts of an upset. Malinga tonked his way to 56, while Mathews remained unbeaten on 77 in the most astonishing of finishes between Sri Lanka and Australia.
In Perth in the CB Series this year, Mathews took the fight to the end with his 64, but Sri Lanka left a bit too much to achieve, finishing five runs short. At the Premadasa, Mathews had better support, but the stress levels couldn't have been very different. A sign of his maturity at the crease was his choice of bowlers to attack. Having given due respect to Gul and Tanvir, Mathews picked the weak link in the seam attack and exposed Pakistan's selection blunder. Sami, chosen ahead of the "rested" Saeed Ajmal, was carted over the sightscreen by Mathews, which gave Sri Lanka the psychological lift in the final over, after which there was no turning back.
Mathews' temperament in high-pressure situations and batting with the tail was honed in his school days, as his coach at St Joseph's College, Harsha de Silva, testifies. "Angelo can adapt himself to any situation, work the ball around," de Silva said. "There was a time when he used to throw his wicket away. He then realised that as a middle-order batsman he had to bat with the tail and he had adapted his game accordingly. He seems to take more responsibility now."
Jayawardene said he knew the lower order was in safe hands with Mathews. "When Kumar and I got out there was a bit of a hiccup but we knew we were batting deep today," Jayawardene said. "It was down to who could take responsibility and Angelo showed that. A lot of people question his role in the side and I don't know why it keeps coming up. He's a quality allrounder."
In a sense it wasn't a terrible thing at all that the seniors fell short, for it revealed Sri Lanka's template for the future. Chandimal botched it after getting to a fifty, but Mathews covered the slack, not for the first time.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo