Pakistan in Sri Lanka 2014 August 4, 2014

Identical captains at opposite ends

As Angelo Mathews and Misbah-ul-Haq look across their battlements in Sri Lanka, they may meet each other's gaze, and know they are a lot alike
45

Sometimes in the cosmic journey, life contrives for kindred souls to cross paths: two people who may be separated geographically, ethnically, economically, even politically, but who are one at the most elemental, human level.

As Angelo Mathews and Misbah-ul-Haq look across their battlements in Sri Lanka, they may meet each other's gaze, and know they are a lot alike.

The last time the two met in Tests, they could not have had more disparate days. Defending a 1-0 series lead, Mathews embraced an extreme form of conservatism and his team drowned in it on the final day in Sharjah. With no choice but to launch an unrelenting attack, Misbah kept his side in the match long enough, until after a whirl of bludgeoned drives and reverse-sweeps from way outside leg stump, he hit the winning run to complete a frenetic victory.

Pakistan have been dormant in Tests since that day, but Mathews has had a busy six months, in which both he and his leadership have grown up, and grown old - grown a little more like Misbah. Now, when Mathews speaks or acts, he is defined by a sense of unshakeable calm. A lot has happened to him in the recent past, with a series win in England and loss at home against South Africa, but a short time after coming off the field, Mathews was no more delighted at Headingley than he was distraught at the SSC. Misbah is past 40 now. Though at times he still bats like he is 25, there is a timeless stoicism to everything in his every move. His words are delivered in grey baritone.

Neither captain is an exemplary tactician, but both are natural leaders in other ways. Misbah's batting average is almost 28 runs better when he is captain. In 11 Tests at the helm, Mathews has statistically been more than twice as good as he was before. They have each inherited a legacy of instability, with captains coming, going and occasionally coming again in the few years before they each took the helm. But since Misbah has had the reins, Pakistan's road has been less rocky. Sri Lanka had been energetic and instinctive under Mahela Jayawardene, but since Mathews has helmed them, his iron resolve has seeped into his team's cricket as well.

There is no doubt who is the more talented cricketer. Misbah is routinely secure and imposing when he wishes to be. But in 2014, Mathews has been a complete batsman, on every kind of surface, in any situation. They both make dour beginnings; that first impulse is always "safety first". But they are also equipped with the skill, and the will to quickly gather pace. For Misbah, the big blows often come suddenly, on the leg side, in the arc between wide long-on and square leg. Mathews, increasingly, just clobbers them where he likes.

Neither are ungainly batsmen, but no one could ever mistake them for artists either. They are too sensible to fuss with aesthetics. Both hail from cricket cultures that celebrate flamboyance - more true for Misbah, perhaps, than for Mathews - but they leave the pretty stuff to their team-mates and take the utilitarian road themselves. Misbah is wise enough to know aggression is critical to the cricket some batsmen play, but Mathews is still learning that others cannot absorb pressure as passively as he can. "We threw away our wickets" is a common complaint. Rarely is Mathews among the "we" in that sentence. So many times he has been like the band that plays a sombre tune while the ship sinks in a panic around him. No one knows that feeling better than Misbah.

There is also no doubt who has the tougher assignment. Eighteen months into his captaincy, Mathews has seen the entire spectrum of administrative bungling, from two contracts standoffs to seniors' tussles with the made-men at Maitland Place. But beyond the spectre of match-fixing that Misbah has worked to leave behind, the board he reports to is in so much disarray, SLC seems like a Sunday afternoon book club in comparison. Every person Misbah meets could be PCB chairman in 20 minutes' time. Or the next Test-match opener.  

Grim-faced and unflappable, it is also sometimes easy to cast Misbah as a sort of tragic hero. He is all the more likeable because of it. If the young players in Sri Lanka's middle order continue to show they are poor replacements for the seniors about to bow out of the game, Mathews may well become a tragic hero himself, in years to come. He is perhaps the luckier of the two because if he carries himself with the grace and dignity Misbah manages, he is not likely to be accused of being too square, as Misbah often is.  

Their teams arrive in Galle, evenly matched and familiar with each other's talents and points of weakness. Steady, courageous and possessed of a slow-burning charisma, the cricket Mathews and Misbah play over the next few weeks will be intriguing, not just for choices they make, but for the moves they elicit from one another.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ghtvnath on August 6, 2014, 4:06 GMT

    Both being good middle order batsmen, do not have a century in ODIs

  • Crick_Expert on August 6, 2014, 1:53 GMT

    SL has more chance to win series as PAK Batting still weakest in Test countries. Shan Massood, Soaib Maqsood should be in test team. Why PCB called back Asad Safiq, as he continue failed in past series.

  • t20cric on August 5, 2014, 15:31 GMT

    It will be an exciting series between two evenly matched teams. Pakistan's bowling will probably be better because Ajmal is in great form and Waqar Younis is coaching our pacers. SL's batting is strong with Sanga and Mathews in form and Mahela being able to suddenly come back in form (century at SSC is almost confirmed). I think Junaid Khan will be really dangerous if the pitch suits fast bowling (his stats against SL are good & stats in SL are even better). It would also be nice if Wahab Riaz can do a Mitchell Johnson and become a tearaway fast bowler. Also hoping for Younis and Misbah not to do much rescue work with Ahmed, Azhar and Umar Akmal scoring big. Team should be: 1.Ahmed Shehzad, 2.Shan Masood, 3.Azhar Ali, 4.Younis Khan, 5.Misbah-ul-haq(captain), 6.Umar Akmal(not as wk), 7.Sarfraz Ahmed(w.k), 8.Abdur Rehman/ Wahab Riaz(depending on if the pitch favors spin or not), 9.Mohammad Talha/ Rahat Ali(Rahat should play only if Talha is injured), 10.Saeed Ajmal, 11.Junaid Khan

  • Malik_Murad on August 5, 2014, 12:58 GMT

    Both are 'Calm and Quiet Captains". We can understand that age factor causes calmness to Misbah. However, one can't understand the young captain Mathews has to rise up with enthusiasm and challenge the opposition with his youthfulness. This is the high time for both the captains to come out of their shells and act as a challenge for the opposition.

  • SaraJeff on August 5, 2014, 11:30 GMT

    SL has slight edge over Pakistan

  • dummy4fb on August 5, 2014, 11:12 GMT

    Looking forward for a great battle between these two skipper Mr.Cool vs Mr.cool...as misbah said we have to stop jayawerdne scoring runs..on the other hand jayawardene will try to score runs for his nation amd himself for a happy ending...good luck jaya

  • dummy4fb on August 5, 2014, 8:58 GMT

    It will be draw,..both side slow bowlers are good,,.batsman's are familiar with spin so don't worry abt....

  • Welay-White-Water on August 5, 2014, 8:50 GMT

    SL,PAK selection and execution will move one team to path of victory at crossroads. Mathews and Misbah not same, have deferent characteristics of classy. Batting all rounder SL captain won't be a lone hero providing a sensible unbiased selection process that find equal replacements for stars about to retire.

  • Romanticstud on August 5, 2014, 7:51 GMT

    South Africa have just toured Sri Lanka ... Pakistan are about to ... The difference:

    a) South Africa had a strong batting line-up so Pakistan may not hold on like South Africa did. b) Pakistan have a spinner of class and can put Sri-Lanka under pressure and expose Sri-lanka's middle order.

    Similarities:

    a) If Irfan plays, he gets the ball to come though much like Morne Morkel. b) Younis Kahn, much like AB de Villiers has the ability to attack the bowling or defend, whatever the circumstances.

    I expect that Pakistan will give Sri-Lanka a fright ... It will be a close series. Maybe a 1-0 result either way.

    Jayawardene and Sangakarra are always the batsmen to watch, but Matthews has also proved a tough customer ... but I suppose it is who has the best spinner ... that will win ...

  • khalid72 on August 5, 2014, 7:15 GMT

    nice article, for pakistan not easy series even they good enough to play spin. pakistani batting to be tested.

  • No featured comments at the moment.