Champions Trophy 2013 May 27, 2013

Mathews embarks with plenty to prove

Both on and off the field, Angelo Mathews gives few emotions away. There was a time when he was among the team's most exuberant men, but experience, and the onset of responsibility, have seemingly dulled his zest for public elation. He is now equally stoic with a dozen microphones set before him.

As Sri Lanka departed for the Champions Trophy in England, Mathews had little to say, aside from trotting out worn-out assurances that the side would seek to capitalise on its strengths, and had set its sights on the semi-finals as their first target. Four months into his tenure, Mathews is already proficient in the art mastered by all jaded captains - that of talking without saying much at all. Only, Sri Lanka's problems in the approach to the tournament did not need vocalising. The IPL has laid them bare.

Nine of Sri Lanka's probable first XI travelled to India for the tournament, and only Thisara Perera and Sachithra Senanayake have returned with any semblance of form behind them. Of the three Sri Lankan captains, Kumar Sangakkara dropped himself from the side, mid-season, citing a poor run, while Mathews himself surrendered the captaincy when his own place in an ailing team became threatened. Mahela Jayawardene remained at the helm of Delhi Daredevils throughout the tournament, but the team finished dead last, with him having done barely anything with the bat to prevent it.

Among the others, Tillakaratne Dilshan failed to fire in five outings, while Jeevan Mendis and Kusal Perera largely warmed the dugout benches during the last two months. Lasith Malinga meanwhile, who had been among the IPL's safest bets in previous seasons, was as bipolar for his franchise as he has been for Sri Lanka in the last 18 months.

Over the past week, the team has arrived piecemeal from across the Palk Strait and headed immediately into Champions Trophy training sessions, to join the six non-IPL cricketers who have been at it for almost a month.

"I'm not really worried about our form," Mathews said. "The IPL is completely different to what we will play now. We are professionals, and we know how to prepare for a tournament like this. The boys are pretty confident of themselves. The guys who were in India and Sri Lanka have all trained well, and there was a training tournament here. When we prepare for the Champions Trophy, we put in a lot of effort, and as a team we are ready for this."

Despite his optimism, Mathews will know the team has further to go than if they had all embarked on their flight to England with runs and wickets to commend them. However, there is also truth in his assertion that the Champions Trophy is a different beast. Alongside Pakistan, Sri Lanka have been the most consistent side at major tournaments in the last six years, making it to four finals in their last six ICC events. Their results leading in to each tournament have not always suggested they would progress to the final.

On each of those occasions, the team has ignited at the beginning of the tournament, finding, as a collective, gears that elude them in many bilateral affairs. By the time the group stage is complete, they have been marked as favourites, and have ridden that momentum to the final, where vexing decisions and uncharacteristic nerves have hastened their ultimate demise.

Chief among the reasons for their sudden surge has, in the past, been leadership. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara matured as cricketers before they were handed the reins, and have proven shrewd as captains in major tournaments.

Mathews may possess a steel temperament, but he has not yet shown himself as a canny leader, and his batting form is a law unto itself - failing abruptly just when formidable scores are beginning to cluster together. His bowling has been more consistent, and it is this that has helped make him a vital part of the Sri Lanka side since his arrival. He is yet, however, to truly establish himself on the international stage in the way that almost every Sri Lankan captain has before him.

The Champions Trophy is his biggest assignment yet, as captain, and his challenge has been magnified by the state of his own game, as well as those of the side's senior batsmen. If Mathews can stir up the familiar courage Sri Lanka teams have embraced in recent tournaments, he will emerge a secure leader, and repay the faith he has been afforded. If he cannot, he will remain a young captain on trial, with plenty still to prove.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here