Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 1st day December 31, 2013

Mathews working hard to justify captaincy

Without a mandate to rule, Angelo Mathews is having to work extremely hard to prove his worth as captain. He played an important innings to save his side from disaster on day one in Abu Dhabi
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Sri Lanka's leadership is in a strange state. This XI features the country's best-ever tactical captain and a cricketer who is perhaps the most respected current player in the world. While either Mahela Jayawardene or Kumar Sangakkara could helm virtually any other Test side, a 26-year-old holds the reins for Sri Lanka.

In Abu Dhabi, Angelo Mathews's produced the sort of lone hand the two senior men have customarily provided. The batting had slid as it so often does in overseas Tests, and full of gall but tempered by good sense, Mathews diverted Sri Lanka's course toward respectability.

It was a reminder of what made him such a star three years ago, because in the ten months since he has been captain, it has been easy to forget his virtues as a cricketer. Sri Lanka have had decent results under Mathews but have rarely strayed from formula, and had been light on the verve that was at the core of their identity under Jayawardene.

Mathews has also seemed increasingly insouciant. The same composure in adversity that saw him anointed as a future leader has also dented his reputation as a captain. His poise, uncluttered mind, and dispassionate stare serve him well when he's running down a tall score, but when he fails it seems as if he's not trying, too aloof, doesn't care. Sometimes you want your captain to smash his bat on his pads when he gets out. Sometimes you want him to yell at the fielder who let a ball slip through.

And so, as Mathews rarely lets emotion bubble over, the discourse on him takes a turn towards moralism. His skill, temperament and cricketing sense are sideshows to the major questions: is he committed enough? Does he deserve the honour of his office? After all, his path to the helm has not been hard-won. He is from a top Colombo school; he was marked out for leadership almost as soon as he secured a place in the side, and he inherited the reins almost by default two years later.

It doesn't help Mathews that some alumni of 1996 publicly propagate the notion that the new breed of Sri Lankan cricketer lacks the passion that defined the world champions. Both former players and fans must perhaps realise that the same forces that propelled the amateurs may no longer be relevant to Sri Lanka, 18 years on.

It also doesn't help that Mathews has not improved substantially since his first 12 months in the team. There are few new shots in his repertoire, the inertia in his innings persists and while an average of around 40 is acceptable for a No. 6, he has not cracked the art of Test match concentration. Eleven times he has crossed 50, but only once has he forged ahead to triple figures. Even that century had been approached at a crawl, in service of personal catharsis and arguably at the expense of the team's cause.

As Jayawardene and Sangakkara look towards retirement, Mathews has ahead of him the hardest task of any Sri Lanka captain since Arjuna Ranatunga

But as top order debris burned around him in Abu Dhabi, Mathews fought fire with aggression. Against a sharp attack running strong, tasting blood, it was hardly an advisable manoeuvre, because every time he pulled or drove, he risked an embarrassing exit. But as inaction either side of lunch had marked Sri Lanka's road to collapse, perhaps Mathews reasoned that the opposite was the way out. His success hit home the major truth about Sri Lanka's first innings: there was little in the pitch or from the opposition that demanded such feeble returns; the batsmen had surrendered all on their own.

The tail arrived towards the end of the second session and Mathews then struck the perfect note between courage and caution. Pakistan stopped attacking Mathews when he hit a spate of imperious square boundaries, but though the infield opened up for him, he declined the easy runs to keep the man at the other end safe. Any proper batsman should have done the same, but in a 60-run ninth-wicket stand with Shaminda Eranga, Mathews seemed a more responsible leader than he perhaps ever has. There was no doubting how much he cared.

It is the sort of innings that will undoubtedly be required of him regularly in the years to come. In this match six Sri Lanka cricketers have played fewer than 15 Tests. Only the supremely gifted can avoid brittleness at the start of their careers, and there is no batsman in the Sri Lanka side that possesses the talent of a Cheteshwar Pujara.

As Jayawardene and Sangakkara look towards retirement, Mathews has ahead of him the hardest task of any Sri Lanka captain since Arjuna Ranatunga. Beyond the batting, Sri Lanka's pace attack is doughty at best and more often toothless. Rangana Herath might stay two more years but no spinner has yet earned the right to call himself a successor. A time approaches where Mathews, still in his twenties, will probably be the most experienced cricketer in the team.

Mathews has so far avoided raising the ire of his bosses, but in the future, he would do well to avoid decisions that put his side at a marked disadvantage. A bleak first day in Abu Dhabi might have been avoided if Sri Lanka had insisted on at least one practice game in the Gulf - a startling oversight, given they had not played Tests since March.

Mathews perished charging an Ajmal doosra, nine short of a second hundred. It is strangely fitting that he did not reach the milestone, because in this, his best innings, every moment had been about his team.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on January 3, 2014, 13:51 GMT

    Mathews is the best cricketer sri Lanka produced in the last decade.. no doubt about it. there is no one even close to him to captain SL...don't know why people always look him as a very matured player.. he z still young and have lot o learn and has along way to go..one day definitely he will become one of the best captains ever..its so sure with the amount of talent and temperament he is showing right now..

  • tallgrass on January 1, 2014, 14:54 GMT

    Sri lanka has enough young talent. the problem is lack of confidence and leadership. Recall how many times Arjuna's team played almost unchanged. We could easily predict the batting order and how each of them would react to a situaiton. That's how consistent the approach was and it eventually worked. With the poor domestic cricket we have there's no other option than to groom our players on the job. We will lose games but you need to see the big picture and have a clear vision. We need a leader (possibly a whole think tank) with a visio to instil confidence. There was no need to recall Prasanna to strengthen middle order or play Sachithra over Nuwan Pradeep on a green pitch just because the latter is inexperienced. You need to put trust in the youth then they will deliver...

  • Captainman on January 1, 2014, 14:16 GMT

    He's a good player but not world class. Sri Lanka lacks quality young talent which is a pity.

  • pull_shot on January 1, 2014, 12:19 GMT

    @diyagama Srilanka away record is so awful, forget Australia u didn't won a SINGLE test match in India, on bouncy tracks name any player from srilanka that comes near to sachin,dravid,laxman,sehwag(who has tons in Aus,Eng,Saf) and any bowler of pakistan pacers class

  • pull_shot on January 1, 2014, 12:13 GMT

    Out of tests he averages 40 with 1 century and have 11 wickets, still we r reading a article here. Truth z that nobody except Sanagakkara cares about test cricket in srilanka but ranathunga on mic says to play more tests but all test series r shrunk or converted to one series

  • on January 1, 2014, 11:38 GMT

    I think Mathews is not got the temperament to be test captain. No doubt he is a very good all rounder but he does not posses the qualities of a good test captain. Srilanka should ask Chandimal for this post.

  • guptahitesh4u on January 1, 2014, 11:05 GMT

    I am still unable to understand how batting with tail makes him a better leader?

  • neo-galactico on January 1, 2014, 10:45 GMT

    Matthews is a myth and the much vaunted talented young guns are still heavily dependent on the elder three

  • on January 1, 2014, 10:02 GMT

    after Malinga and Muralitharan's retirement from tests, sri lanka's mail problem is in picking 20 wickets with out conceding huge advantage to opposition. already Dilshan has retired . if Mahela and Sanga too retire in couple of years, SL cricket will witness some lows. they need to develop very quickly to fill the void which would be created. that would be a huge challenge.

  • Fast_Track_Bully on January 1, 2014, 9:17 GMT

    @diyagama. LOL. India is the oly country leveled a test series in SA. (last time ) . Also leveled series at home against SA. India won 2 matches in SA. Do some research before commenting!

  • on January 3, 2014, 13:51 GMT

    Mathews is the best cricketer sri Lanka produced in the last decade.. no doubt about it. there is no one even close to him to captain SL...don't know why people always look him as a very matured player.. he z still young and have lot o learn and has along way to go..one day definitely he will become one of the best captains ever..its so sure with the amount of talent and temperament he is showing right now..

  • tallgrass on January 1, 2014, 14:54 GMT

    Sri lanka has enough young talent. the problem is lack of confidence and leadership. Recall how many times Arjuna's team played almost unchanged. We could easily predict the batting order and how each of them would react to a situaiton. That's how consistent the approach was and it eventually worked. With the poor domestic cricket we have there's no other option than to groom our players on the job. We will lose games but you need to see the big picture and have a clear vision. We need a leader (possibly a whole think tank) with a visio to instil confidence. There was no need to recall Prasanna to strengthen middle order or play Sachithra over Nuwan Pradeep on a green pitch just because the latter is inexperienced. You need to put trust in the youth then they will deliver...

  • Captainman on January 1, 2014, 14:16 GMT

    He's a good player but not world class. Sri Lanka lacks quality young talent which is a pity.

  • pull_shot on January 1, 2014, 12:19 GMT

    @diyagama Srilanka away record is so awful, forget Australia u didn't won a SINGLE test match in India, on bouncy tracks name any player from srilanka that comes near to sachin,dravid,laxman,sehwag(who has tons in Aus,Eng,Saf) and any bowler of pakistan pacers class

  • pull_shot on January 1, 2014, 12:13 GMT

    Out of tests he averages 40 with 1 century and have 11 wickets, still we r reading a article here. Truth z that nobody except Sanagakkara cares about test cricket in srilanka but ranathunga on mic says to play more tests but all test series r shrunk or converted to one series

  • on January 1, 2014, 11:38 GMT

    I think Mathews is not got the temperament to be test captain. No doubt he is a very good all rounder but he does not posses the qualities of a good test captain. Srilanka should ask Chandimal for this post.

  • guptahitesh4u on January 1, 2014, 11:05 GMT

    I am still unable to understand how batting with tail makes him a better leader?

  • neo-galactico on January 1, 2014, 10:45 GMT

    Matthews is a myth and the much vaunted talented young guns are still heavily dependent on the elder three

  • on January 1, 2014, 10:02 GMT

    after Malinga and Muralitharan's retirement from tests, sri lanka's mail problem is in picking 20 wickets with out conceding huge advantage to opposition. already Dilshan has retired . if Mahela and Sanga too retire in couple of years, SL cricket will witness some lows. they need to develop very quickly to fill the void which would be created. that would be a huge challenge.

  • Fast_Track_Bully on January 1, 2014, 9:17 GMT

    @diyagama. LOL. India is the oly country leveled a test series in SA. (last time ) . Also leveled series at home against SA. India won 2 matches in SA. Do some research before commenting!

  • on January 1, 2014, 6:36 GMT

    whatever said there is no one else in the current SL setup to captain than Mathews. I think the number of times that he has pulled-out the team from difficult situations is a testimony itself.

  • Ara247 on January 1, 2014, 6:05 GMT

    Don't criiticise him every time Andrew. He is still young and we should give some time. He can nothing to when all the others are utter failures.

  • ms2000 on January 1, 2014, 6:03 GMT

    No matter what is said Angelo Mathews is the worst captain to be appointed in the history of Sri Lankan Cricket. he must understand this and step down. He is a good all rounder but definitely lacks the leadership

  • on January 1, 2014, 5:29 GMT

    At last finally some respect for Mathews !! He will lift the cup in 2015 !!

  • Fast_Track_Bully on January 1, 2014, 5:23 GMT

    Worst captain in SL history. Even he do not know why he is in the team! Pathetic record in tests and ODIs. Forget about away matches, even in sub-continent he is not a good player. Why so much hype on this fluke inngs?

  • Fast_Track_Bully on January 1, 2014, 5:21 GMT

    Why"tt" in Angelo Matthews?

  • Shridharan.S on January 1, 2014, 4:16 GMT

    @diyagama Don't just bluff whatever you know. Your comments are just wrong and I can show them. I can agree Sri Lanka won one test in their tour to South Africa. But they didn't draw the series. SA won the last test in Cape Town and the first one too. You can go to check this in the following URL: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/514021.html Compare your team's performance with India: On their tour to South Africa, they lost the first test, won the second and almost won the last one in Cape Town if not for Jacques Kallis. Hence we drew the series in the "hardest country to play test cricket". You can go to check this in the following URL: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/463137.html

  • diyagama on January 1, 2014, 1:50 GMT

    Sri Lankans play better than Indians in bouncy tracks. Dont forget that we won a test match in South Africa and managed to drew the series which is the hardest country to play test cricket. Even when we toured New Zealand and Australia we played better than other sub continent teams like India and Pakistan.

  • on January 1, 2014, 1:40 GMT

    Mathews played brilliantly. He is a good Test batsman. There's no doubt about that but this inning doesn't say anything about his captaincy. In the long run Mathews is the one to captain Sri Lanka in Tests but ODI and T20 should be given to someone else. I am really disappointed with the other players' batting. Totally irresponsible. Playing rash shots, chasing deliveries way out. We had only 3 Test matches for 2013. That's the reason for what has happened to our young players. They all are T20 materials to an extent. SL Cricket Board together with the selectors need to get some more Test matches this year otherwise we will be losing even to Zimbabwe and please give chances to other players and let Chandimal stand out and watch for some time.

  • KingOwl on January 1, 2014, 1:14 GMT

    One more thing: Andrew, are you suggesting that Sanga or Mahela should be the captain? That does not make any sense at all! For how long would that be?

  • goldeneye075 on January 1, 2014, 1:02 GMT

    " It doesn't help Mathews that some alumni of 1996 publicly propagate the notion that the new breed of Sri Lankan cricketer lacks the passion that defined the world champions. Both former players and fans must perhaps realise that the same forces that propelled the amateurs may no longer be relevant to Sri Lanka, 18 years on " -- SPOT-ON Andrew Fidel Fernando : I 100% agree with the whole article. This is not 90's any more times have changed, and we need to move forward. Angelo has the hardest job in hand, with a team short of match practise , a team that plays 2 test matches per year, how can anyone improve or be consistent?

  • Murali_the_greatest on December 31, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    I think Angelo Matthews has the potential to be a very good captain in the making. He is cool under pressure, leads from the front without fear and at the same time comes across as down to earth and sensible. Sri Lankan fans are quick to be critical but we are fortunate to have someone so young who is also clearly long term captaincy material. So what if he doesn't show excessive emotion and frustration? A leader should be the last person to do that anyway!

  • KingOwl on December 31, 2013, 18:47 GMT

    I have great respect for both Mahela and Sanga. But as captains, they were certainly not great. They were not charismatic leaders like Arjuna. They were good, decent men leading a solid team. But let us not forget that despite many opportunities, they never won a major championship. Angelo is still very young. Unlike in the West, in SL, people mature much more slowly. So, we can't expect Angelo to have the same emotional maturity that, for instance, Greame Smith had when he became captain at a young age. Mathews will slowly improve. He needs time. Besides, who else is there in the team who is stable enough and young enough to be captain?

  • on December 31, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    Sri Lankans need to perform well on fast and bouncy tracks. Only then they will be in demand - more countries will call them for tours and this is the only way in which their cricket will improve.

  • Cric_fever_forever on December 31, 2013, 17:45 GMT

    hmmmm he played really well.... but honestly if u ask me with all due respect he is not captain material not at least in longer format neither i see chandimal as captain at least not now. they both lack charisma of a captain like sanga or mahela had.

  • mensan on December 31, 2013, 17:14 GMT

    He batted well today. I saved SL from total collapse. But he should bowl well too.

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  • mensan on December 31, 2013, 17:14 GMT

    He batted well today. I saved SL from total collapse. But he should bowl well too.

  • Cric_fever_forever on December 31, 2013, 17:45 GMT

    hmmmm he played really well.... but honestly if u ask me with all due respect he is not captain material not at least in longer format neither i see chandimal as captain at least not now. they both lack charisma of a captain like sanga or mahela had.

  • on December 31, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    Sri Lankans need to perform well on fast and bouncy tracks. Only then they will be in demand - more countries will call them for tours and this is the only way in which their cricket will improve.

  • KingOwl on December 31, 2013, 18:47 GMT

    I have great respect for both Mahela and Sanga. But as captains, they were certainly not great. They were not charismatic leaders like Arjuna. They were good, decent men leading a solid team. But let us not forget that despite many opportunities, they never won a major championship. Angelo is still very young. Unlike in the West, in SL, people mature much more slowly. So, we can't expect Angelo to have the same emotional maturity that, for instance, Greame Smith had when he became captain at a young age. Mathews will slowly improve. He needs time. Besides, who else is there in the team who is stable enough and young enough to be captain?

  • Murali_the_greatest on December 31, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    I think Angelo Matthews has the potential to be a very good captain in the making. He is cool under pressure, leads from the front without fear and at the same time comes across as down to earth and sensible. Sri Lankan fans are quick to be critical but we are fortunate to have someone so young who is also clearly long term captaincy material. So what if he doesn't show excessive emotion and frustration? A leader should be the last person to do that anyway!

  • goldeneye075 on January 1, 2014, 1:02 GMT

    " It doesn't help Mathews that some alumni of 1996 publicly propagate the notion that the new breed of Sri Lankan cricketer lacks the passion that defined the world champions. Both former players and fans must perhaps realise that the same forces that propelled the amateurs may no longer be relevant to Sri Lanka, 18 years on " -- SPOT-ON Andrew Fidel Fernando : I 100% agree with the whole article. This is not 90's any more times have changed, and we need to move forward. Angelo has the hardest job in hand, with a team short of match practise , a team that plays 2 test matches per year, how can anyone improve or be consistent?

  • KingOwl on January 1, 2014, 1:14 GMT

    One more thing: Andrew, are you suggesting that Sanga or Mahela should be the captain? That does not make any sense at all! For how long would that be?

  • on January 1, 2014, 1:40 GMT

    Mathews played brilliantly. He is a good Test batsman. There's no doubt about that but this inning doesn't say anything about his captaincy. In the long run Mathews is the one to captain Sri Lanka in Tests but ODI and T20 should be given to someone else. I am really disappointed with the other players' batting. Totally irresponsible. Playing rash shots, chasing deliveries way out. We had only 3 Test matches for 2013. That's the reason for what has happened to our young players. They all are T20 materials to an extent. SL Cricket Board together with the selectors need to get some more Test matches this year otherwise we will be losing even to Zimbabwe and please give chances to other players and let Chandimal stand out and watch for some time.

  • diyagama on January 1, 2014, 1:50 GMT

    Sri Lankans play better than Indians in bouncy tracks. Dont forget that we won a test match in South Africa and managed to drew the series which is the hardest country to play test cricket. Even when we toured New Zealand and Australia we played better than other sub continent teams like India and Pakistan.

  • Shridharan.S on January 1, 2014, 4:16 GMT

    @diyagama Don't just bluff whatever you know. Your comments are just wrong and I can show them. I can agree Sri Lanka won one test in their tour to South Africa. But they didn't draw the series. SA won the last test in Cape Town and the first one too. You can go to check this in the following URL: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/514021.html Compare your team's performance with India: On their tour to South Africa, they lost the first test, won the second and almost won the last one in Cape Town if not for Jacques Kallis. Hence we drew the series in the "hardest country to play test cricket". You can go to check this in the following URL: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/463137.html