A hundred that Mathews might grow to regret
Test cricket died a little in Colombo today. With a match for the winning and a series to be saved, Angelo Mathews was so consumed by his personal goal that he all but forgot about Sri Lanka's.
To score a first Test century is a significant achievement, not least on the subcontinent, where statistical milestones carry plenty of meaning in themselves. But the way Mathews went about getting there, draining the match of much of its remaining life, did a good deal of harm to the game.
Cricket is often described as a team game for individuals, and there are times when the single-minded pursuit of a century can be precisely what the side requires. Sri Lanka needed Mathews to add to the lead, and to occupy the crease for time in the company of the tail. What they did not need was for him to choke up the flow of runs so comprehensively that only 45 runs seeped from 19 overs on the fourth morning, as Australia sat back in the knowledge that a draw would win them the series.
Every delivery that Mathews dead-batted cost his team, and gave Australia a greater chance of evading defeat. Every single he refused lessened the hosts' chances of winning the match, squaring the series and keeping fourth spot in the ICC rankings. And every over of hesitance and indecision reflected badly on Mathews, Sri Lanka and the game itself.
The inertia rather reflected the wider state of the Sri Lankan team in this series, as it wrestles with leadership, management and selection changes. This is not a dressing room from which firm directives were necessarily going to be delivered. Nor was it one from which the new captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, would have declared on Mathews in the 90s, as Michael Atherton did to Graeme Hick at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1995.
Such dithering can cost a team more than momentum. At Port Elizabeth in 1997, South Africa were lording it over Australia until Adam Bacher lingered on the edge of a half-century for an interminable period. In that time he ran out his partner and then was dismissed himself, starting a pivotal swing in a match that was ultimately won thrillingly by the visitors, handing them the series. Such misadventures can be avoided by a team-oriented approach, and also by a stronger hand in the dressing room.
The absence of a fulltime coach since the exit of Trevor Bayliss has hampered Sri Lanka's progress. Uncertainty over the role, combined with Dilshan's fledgling leadership, has meant there is less accountability and direction than is needed. Rumesh Ratnayake, the interim coach, is a capable mentor without the authority of permanence. An overseas coach is being sought, perhaps Geoff Marsh, who will need to provide strong leadership and targets for the players to work towards. Otherwise there may be more passages like that witnessed at the SSC ground, and all will be poorer for it.
This was not the first time that Mathews had been complicit in an episode where team objectives were subservient to those of an individual. Dinesh Chandimal's ODI hundred against England at Lord's was reached via what can only be described as some extreme non-batting from Mathews, who pottered around for a single from 21 balls while Chandimal eased to his century.
Having watched it in the field, England's Alastair Cook wondered aloud at the point of it all: "I've never seen that before. It is clear what they were doing, but it was a bit strange. They're perfectly entitled to do that if they want, but it was slightly strange and you never know, the cricketing gods might look at that with a bit of disgust."
Mathews, it must be remembered, is probably Sri Lanka's next captain. He was pushed forward as a possible candidate to replace Kumar Sangakkara, despite his youth, and the appointment of the older Dilshan can be interpreted as a holding manoeuvre while Mathews grows.
He will, in time, take on lessons about the wider interests of the game, and about the need to risk defeat or personal failure in pursuit of a team victory. These are the values that an effective captain must hold, and Mathews will not be ready to lead until the day he can take a dimmer view of his first Test century than he did in the moment he reached it.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo