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

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

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