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Angelo Mathews' captaincy has been on an upward trend but will he go for the kill in his first assignment at home against South Africa, who are traditionally off-colour in Sri Lanka?
Andrew Fidel Fernando
July 15, 2014
Sri Lanka's reputation had sunk so low before Tests in South Africa in 2011/12, Kepler Wessels urged South Africa to experiment during their visit. "Have you seen Sri Lanka play recently?" he asked in a South African newspaper. "We could beat them with our SA 'A' side."
When Rangana Herath had whirled his team to victory in Durban, then-captain Tillakaratne Dilshan strode to post-match press conference with a grin that cleaved his face in two. "We actually want to thank Kepler Wessels," he gloated. "He gave us the motivation."
Though Sri Lanka had won the ODI series in England this year, Michael Vaughan summoned similar condescension prior to the Tests. "As I said last week, Sri Lanka are just a glorified county attack," he wrote in a column. Angelo Mathews could not help but counter when Sri Lanka had taken 20 England wickets at Headingley. "I hope my attack is better than a county attack," he said.
Only, the two responses were not alike. Not quite. Mathews smirked slightly as he delivered the line, but there was no showboating over the historic result. His tone was marked by restraint and his manner conveyed relief. "We don't have Chaminda Vaas or Muttiah Muralitharan in our team," he said, "but we have some guys who are willing to do the job, are working really hard, and they're excited about playing Test cricket."
Restraint and control has been Mathews' style in Tests, since taking on the captaincy last year. In his first major assignment in the UAE, he had his side playing within their limitations. There were no blazing innings, fancy fields or magic deliveries. He leant instead on hard graft and perseverance. Ambition well-harnessed won Sri Lanka a Test in Dubai, then a hankering for safety gifted one away in Sharjah. Even in Bangladesh, Mathews waited to amass leads of 498 and 466 before sending the hosts back in to bat. One Test on that tour was easily won. The other was drawn, when perhaps more could have been made of it.
There were mistakes from Mathews in England: bowling first under blue skies at Lord's and persevering with a short-ball plan when it was not bringing results in that first innings set Sri Lanka back in the match. But there were hints he had begun to add new bolts to his leadership quiver.
When England sought to build on their first-innings lead on day four, Mathews refused the temptation to slow their advance by putting men on the fence, and instead kept the field tight on the batsmen. Mid-way through the day, he was rewarded with an inspired burst from Shaminda Eranga that claimed key wickets and stemmed England's progress far better than four or five boundary riders could have.
Sri Lanka were chasing the game for so long at Headingley, Mathews perhaps had no other option but to press the attack. He did so without relent and with increasing flexibility kept Sri Lanka in the match until he personally turned it on its head. He had opened the bowling with his cross-seamers on the third morning on a hunch, and dismissed the England tail that had hurt them in the previous match. On the final day, Mathews tried every possible mode of attack short of rubber bullets and tasers, until the final five wickets were pried out. He had made 10 bowling changes in the last hour, searching all his pockets for the keys to victory, until Eranga unlatched the door.
As Mathews prepares for his first home assignment against a top-eight side, he ventures further down the path of self-discovery, and he takes his team with him. Early in his tenure, Mathews had been content to allow senior players to do much of the marshaling, but he has slowly tightened his grip on the team's destiny. Will he aggressively pursue an opponent that has historically done poorly in Sri Lanka, and are in the midst of a transition themselves? Or will he strive for caution first and victory second against the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander?
Will he be tempted by glory? Defeating the no. 2 side in Tests will send Sri Lanka shooting up the rankings. A 1-0 victory would propel the hosts to fourth on the table. A sweep of the two-Test series, lifts them to third. Mathews had set his sights on a top-three ranking across all formats when he took the helm, but even he might not have believed the possibility would arise in the first 18 months of his leadership. Given Sri Lanka were seventh on the table at the beginning of June, that would constitute a staggering advance.
But he may just as easily be shackled by the fear of failure. Mathews has been in teams that have tasted plenty of that before. Exactly 12 months after Durban, Sri Lanka were humiliated at the MCG in front of the biggest Test-match crowd they have ever played for. He will not want Sri Lanka's Test-match gains to be squandered so wantonly in 2014, chasing what he might feel is a fantasy. Whatever happens, Sri Lanka can be certain Mathews will not be overcome by overconfidence. He is calm, steady and resolute. That is why he is captain in the first place.
As another senior prepares to bid farewell to Tests, Mathews knows he has a mountain to climb in the long term. Whichever way his leadership goes in this series, the choices of a young captain finding his way will make for intriguing, and revealing viewing.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernandoFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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