Devotion to the collective sees Mathews thrive
In 1950, 22-year-old Ernesto Guevara embarked on a motorcycle journey around Latin America. A medical student at the time, Guevara had had a relatively comfortable life, but in his travels, he was thrown into intimate contact with stark poverty and wanton injustice. The experience was cataclysmic. Guevara searched deep within himself, and was compelled to his core. Years later, 'Che' would go on to lead revolutions, however laudable or otherwise, that shaped an embattled part of the world.
No lives and few livelihoods ride on Sri Lanka's cricket, but in recent years, captaincy has defined the men handed the reins. Following a leadership exodus in 2011, Tillakaratne Dilshan accepted the post with elation, but his eight months in charge were brutal for him, and largely fruitless for the team, save for a Test win in South Africa.
Two years later, a new batch of selectors installed Sri Lanka's most promising rookie batsman in the T20 driving seat. Dinesh Chandimal was once on the way to scripting a village-boy-come-good tale for Sri Lanka, but responsibility fettered his free spirit. His poor run of form ended famously, when he dropped himself, to allow the team to win the World T20 without him. He now struggles to make the XI in any format.
Angelo Mathews was something of a free spirit too, once. There were days when he would surge out of the crease in the first over, to deposit a spinner into the stands. Other times, he would launch counterattacks from low in the order. Occasionally, these came off in spectacular fashion, as in an ODI in Melbourne in 2010, but many times, aggression would light his path to an early exit. Still, it was easy to get behind Mathews in those early days, when he was just another young talent, out to make a name for himself.
But then suddenly, he was being talked of as Sri Lanka's next captain. The mood changed. Blocking balls to get Chandimal to an ODI hundred at Lord's was a debacle. Worse was his conversion rate in Tests. Before February last year, when he became captain, he had crossed 50 on 12 occasions, and only gone on the three figures once. He had almost always played well enough to deserve his place, but the disappointment of falling short of glory was often writ on his face.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where Mathews' cricket made a turn. The change was not immediate. But somewhere, in the months after being loaded with responsibility at 25, Mathews' outlook changed. Perhaps he introspected. Perhaps someone had a word. His destiny was tethered tightly to the team's now, and that realisation forced a shift.
The Mathews that emerged in the series in the UAE in January was a new man. On day one of that series, he seared 92 alongside the tail, after the top order had collapsed. On day four and five, he slow-cooked 157 not out to save the Test. The match in which his attitude and approach aligned completely with the team's requirement, he had earned his own highest score and aggregate.
At Lord's Mathews applauded on the balcony when Kumar Sangakkara completed his mission for a hundred. The next morning, perhaps he saw the taped-on placeholder on the honours board, with Sangakkara's name and score. But though he was near triple figures himself, he could not allow himself to be nervous, as Sangakkara had been. Squeezing the final partnerships for every run they were worth, Mathews turned down singles into the outfield, in his nineties. When he would have once nurdled his way through the last 20 runs, he was throwing his bat at good length balls, just outside off stump.
Cricket is a great leveller they say. In January, Mathews had a savage lesson on the perils of negative cricket in Sharjah, but here, the cricket gods had for him a reward. When he crashed James Anderson through the covers, he became Sri Lanka's eighth centurion at the venue. At the end of that knock, his batting average as captain was 82.44.
There is no doubt Mathews has a long way to go as a tactician. There were conservative declarations in Bangladesh, earlier in the year, and his decision to bowl first in this match has already come under scrutiny.
But he also has the chance to shape a new, exciting team. Shaminda Eranga's pinpoint spell either side of lunch on day four was further suggestion he is Sri Lanka's long-term spearhead, with Suranga Lakmal set to become a long-term new-ball partner. Young batsmen vie for middle order places, and young spinners turn heads in domestic cricket.
Devotion to the collective has seen Mathews unlock his talent like never before. If Sri Lanka are to become a top three Test side, he must play many more innings laced with self-denial, like the one at Lord's. Some days, he will not have a hundred to show for it.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando