Jayawardene praise for Mathews' captaincy
There are few better experts on captaincy in Sri Lanka than Mahela Jayawardene, who was so well-respected in the role that the selectors effectively forced a second stint upon him.
In his first four years in the job, Sri Lanka enjoyed a period defined as much by the allure of their cricket as their success in Tests and ODIs. Test series victories over India, England and South Africa (the 2006 loss remains their last defeat away from home), an Asia Cup title and an impressive 2007 World Cup campaign were among his achievements as a leader, and Sri Lanka rose to No. 2 in the world rankings across all formats soon after his initial resignation.
Late last year, Jayawardene announced he would not captain Sri Lanka beyond the year-end tour of Australia, because it was time for Sri Lanka to produce a young leader while he and the other seniors remained in the team to provide guidance. Angelo Mathews has long been the heir for Sri Lanka, and he took over the ODI and Test captaincy in February.
Mathews has the unreserved support of both seniors and the younger group in his side, and his nerveless temperament in high-pressure situations had made his leadership potential plain early in his career. He has only played five ODIs since taking the reins but, as Sri Lanka attempt to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy, Jayawardene emphasised the importance for Mathews to be among the runs and wickets, even as he learns the art of leadership at the top level.
"The most important thing is that Angie contributes as a player, which I've told him as well," Jayawardene said. "He's a part of the XI, so it's not just about him as a captain - that's a secondary thing that will naturally come to him when he is making calls around the field. There are a few senior heads out there as well, who can help him with that."
Mathews had had mixed results as captain before arriving in England. Bangladesh drew their first-ever Test against Sri Lanka on a flat pitch in Galle under Mathews' watch, before winning their first-ever ODI on Sri Lankan soil, to draw the one-day series. Mathews had captained his side to a 2-0 Twenty20 victory in Australia in January, but the Twenty20 captaincy has since been handed to Dinesh Chandimal in the February leadership shake-up.
He has seemingly grown more confident in his role during the Champions Trophy. He failed with the bat, and did not bowl in the loss to New Zealand, but marshalled his side with assurance in the field, as they almost defended 138. A leadership decision to promote Nuwan Kulasekara to No. 5 then paid dividends in the win against England on Thursday.
"He looked pretty good, the way he handled the New Zealand game and the England game on the field," Jayawardene said. "He's not rattled by tough situations and every game that he plays, he enjoys his captaincy. He's not trying to think too far ahead of himself and he's handing situations in the moment. That's the best way to go about it, because there's less pressure that way. He's gaining experience, so we just need to help him out. So far, everything looks pretty decent.
"I'm sure we would have got a lot of criticism if the decision to promote Kule didn't work, but that's how the game goes and it worked for us."
Jayawardene also played a key role in Thursday's victory, linking Sri Lanka's secure start with their final flourish with a brisk 42. Before the tournament began, he had not played international cricket since January, due to a fractured finger, but appears to be finding form as the pointy end of the tournament approaches. In past campaigns, Jayawardene has been Sri Lanka's big-match performer, having hit a World Cup final hundred as well as a semi-final ton. He also top-scored in last year's World Twenty20 semi-final in Colombo.
"It was very good to get on track and to be contributing like that because that's what the team wants from me," he said of the innings against England. "The finger is looking pretty good. A few hits here and there it swells up a bit, but other than that it's pretty good. It was a good knock in the middle. I wish I could have finished the game off with Kumar, but hopefully I can do that in the next game."
Sri Lanka play a virtual quarter-final against Australia on Monday, and Jayawardene said Sri Lanka's recent success against Australia will provide a psychological edge for them. In the last 10 ODIs between the teams - all of which were played in Australia - Sri Lanka have won 6. They drew the ODI series 2-2 earlier this year, but were favourites to win the fourth ODI in Sydney before 45 minutes of drizzle rendered the SCG playing area unusable in the eyes of the match officials.
"I think in the last two years or so we've been very consistent against Australia and we've played them very well. We managed to handle a lot of situations better than them, so hopefully we can continue that. That said, in a tournament like this, things are different. We need to play to our strengths like we did in the England match."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here