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One of the great Test innings by Angelo Mathews, typical of his outstanding record as captain, has put Sri Lanka on the brink of a famous win
June 23, 2014
If I asked you which international captain had the best batting record during his period at the helm, you would doubtless answer Donald Bradman. And you would be right. But if I asked who was next, I'll bet you wouldn't pick Angelo Mathews. Bradman, 24 matches, average 101.51; Mathews, nine matches, average 78.83. For what it is worth: Viv Richards, 50 matches, average 45.11. Early days, of course, so early that the Mathews average will surely slide but it tells you he is enjoying the job.
Those of us blessed with a life watching, talking and writing about the game of cricket get to see many special things. In the most recent period of the game, Mitchell Johnson's fast bowling last winter, AB de Villiers remarkable breadth of skill, Sachin Tendulkar's retirement speech, Kevin Pietersen's hundred in Mumbai, Dale Steyn's bursts of frightening intensity, Michael Clarke's golden 2012 and MS Dhoni's match-winning performance in the World Cup final are some that spring to mind.
Now Mathews must be added to the list. Rarely can one man, with one innings, have so utterly changed the course of a match and, in so doing, completely humiliated the opposition. Mathews toyed with the best of England. He reduced James Anderson and Stuart Broad - 600 Test-match wickets between them - to a pair of bowling machines. It was as if he had fixed their line and length to his own preference and then set about destruction.
Remember, this all began with Mahela Jayawardene on Sunday at 5.39pm. It was calamity time then for Sri Lanka. Indeed, experts were making markets on the time England would complete victory. By the time he finished, almost 23 hours later, the calamity was all England's and the victory chant was coming from the Sri Lankans.
The first occasion that most of us were made aware of this rare and confident talent was at the MCG, when he won a one-day match against Australia with a series of magnificent strikes into the bleachers. They were hit with a sense of belonging. The match was won from nowhere and yet there was no great fuss, just the idea that the man winning it was born to the task of representing his country at cricket and that he would do the honour justice.
The figures illustrate he relishes the captaincy but the performances are even greater proof. On this tour, his batting in the deciding one-day match at Edgbaston saw Sri Lanka home. A week later, he made a free-spirited hundred in the first innings of the Test at Lord's before battling through the second innings for 18 runs in 90 balls over two and a quarter hours to help save the match.
He is a fine reader of the game and brings a calm response to the situation. He plays with little ego, preferring to relate his effort to the needs of the team. In this match, there were numerous opportunities to smash Moeen Ali down the ground but he knew that the longer he occupied the crease, the more he sucked the oxygen out of England.
Come to think of it, there was something sadistic about the calculation and execution. Certainly the arrogance we saw in the best of Richards was mirrored by the Sri Lanka captain. When England set the field back to allow him a single and bowl at the other bloke, he blocked four balls, smashed one to the boundary and stole a single of the last. It was magnificent in its simplicity. He cut, he drove, he glanced, he pulled, he paddle-pulled and he slogged. Never, ever did he appear in trouble. In fact he barely missed a ball that he wanted to hit. That is an exaggeration because the Headingley pitch ensures the odd whoosh for no result but the point is made. Even Bradman could not have played it better and he played a pretty darn good hand here in 1948.
Probably, this effort will lead his country to victory. It will be the first time that England have lost one of the short series at the start of the summer that began back at the turn of the century. The damage has been done by one of cricket's best innings. Yes, criticism will swamp Alastair Cook's team at the inquest but it must never be forgotten that something rather special brought them down.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
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