England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 4th day June 23, 2014

Mathews unlocks another dimension

Angelo Mathews' innings may have defined the Test match but it also has potential to define his career

When Dhammika Prasad ramped his first ball into a diving third man's hands, Angelo Mathews hurled him a furious look. Head down, Prasad would not meet his captain's eyes, but Mathews was too disgusted to let it lie there. He crossed to the other end and threw his bat a metre, to the ground.

Mathews was made captain partly for his stoicism; his calmness, and often courage, under fire. In 17 months at the helm, he has hardly had a go at one of the many bowlers who have missed their lines, or the fielders who let balls slip through their hands and legs. Even comical ineptitude, has drawn no more than a groan from him.

But he had been battling as if for his life all morning at Headingley, making his blade wider than a sea wall as waves of England attacks broke upon it, then ruthless counter-strikes when the bowlers strayed. He had watched Mahela Jayawardene nick behind, playing loose drive. He had seen Dinesh Chandimal fold neatly into England's leg-side trap. With at least 60 runs to get before Sri Lanka's lead would feel comfortable, Prasad's foolish stroke just put him over the edge.

Mathews was only 55 at that point, playing nicely, putting his fine form to use. But few would have expected the carnage to follow. Enraged by a team-mate, and emboldened by desire, Mathews engaged beast mode. He would hit one of the great Sri Lanka innings before he left the field; a knock so outrageous, yet so clinical, it would unlock even a further dimension to his cricket than he has already managed in a rich past six months.

As England set men back on the fence to Mathews, and hoped to force a wicket at the other end, Mathews took up a sledgehammer in one hand and a scalpel in the other. Boundaries down the ground took all forms, from classical on-drives, to mows through the air, only they were all hit hard, and exactly where Mathews wished to dispatch them. The cuts past point and the glances off straight balls seemed almost effortless by comparison. When bowling full proved futile, England kept pitching it short, imagining he would lose control of his pull shot some time. Mathews never did.

But his systematic hogging of the strike was even more incredible. England's ring fielders fenced off the paddock on the off side, but Mathews would move across his stumps and work the ball to the open prairies on leg. Eventually, the bowlers would go too wide even for that, yet somehow, Mathews injected the ball between clots of England fielders and crossed when he required. Sometimes he timed the ball too well. Rarely has a batsman seemed so annoyed to watch the ball cross the rope. Of the 348 balls England would deliver while Mathews was at the crease on Monday, he would face 201.

Alastair Cook may reflect he erred in failing to attack Mathews after the first hour, and in delaying Moeen Ali's introduction, but as abysmal a day as he had, Mathews had a worse one five months ago. Mathews' tactics defied sense on day five in Sharjah. On the other end of a sapping assault now, his thinking could not have been clearer.

He knew in his soul where the fielders were for each bowler, and when they would push in, and sit back. The umpires had trouble keeping track of the number of balls in each over but, in between skipping down the track to England's fastest bowler, putting the spinner into space, Mathews never lost count. When Rangana Herath pulled Stuart Broad behind square for four, Mathews was down the pitch to embrace his partner, long before the stadium announcer had marked their century stand.

Cricket nous has not been Mathews' strength in time gone by but, until he ran Herath out, his decision-making was nearly flawless. Most times when Sri Lanka's strategy makes a mockery of the opposition, Jayawardene is involved, but he was instead in the pavilion, breathing it in.

"The message to our boys was that we just take whatever singles on offer," Jayawardene said. "Angelo batted really well in that situation, safeguarding the tail and taking the opportunity to go for those big shots when the field was in. It was the right way for Angie to go. He didn't have to take too many risks when the field was back, but whenever he needed to take a risk, he did. In that context, that showed that they were on the back foot and we just needed to drive that advantage we had forward. It was one of the best knocks I've seen."

Herath's hand in Sri Lanka's resurgence cannot be forgotten too. Before this innings, the team had urged the tailenders to show grit, and if the courage in his bowling is anything to go by, it is no surprise Herath responded most emphatically to that request. If he helps seal a victory on day five, Sri Lanka will cap off an extraordinary five months, in which they will have won every trophy they played for.

Mathews' innings may well have defined the Test match, but it also has potential to define his career. Only a handful of Sri Lanka batsmen have ever managed the kind of mastery he showcased. The challenge to him, and his team, is to never settle for just being very good.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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