Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Galle July 15, 2014

Mathews' journey of self-discovery

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?

Angelo Mathews's captaincy is combination of restraint and control © Associated Press

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. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Denham on July 16, 2014, 7:10 GMT

    Cricket they say is a funny game and you never know the result until the last ball is bowled but this funny game is played by some very serious blokes. One such serious bloke is the man in question here - Angelo Mathews. We all were furious about him allowing Chandimal to go for his 100 at Lords a few years ago but he was so cool in the middle he knew the game was our and in deed, that game was ours as we tasted victoryat the end. Such is his confidence about fellow players and in himself that I personally do not worry about the future of our cricket here in Sri Lanka. Yes, MJ and KS will hang their boots any time now as so did TMD but we have some good guys in Lahiru, Dinesh etc,. which includes Mathews himself. We may lose a game or a series here and there (Any team would experience this) but on the longer run, we are going to be a force to recon with. JAYA WEWA LIONS....

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2014, 13:46 GMT

    We all know Mathews is a gutty terminator, Quiet and self confident. What he needs is the support in the front and tail. Mahela a legend is leaving, Sanga will follow in my opinion. Then who is left to sail through the troubled waters is a big question. No one seems in making. If such things happen, I do not blame Mathews.

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2014, 13:37 GMT

    Excellent assessment, however I have two points of disagreement. Apart from Rangana Herath there were few others who made significant contributions towards Durban test win. Thilan Samaraweera, always the unsung hero, whose 102 in first innings (43 in the second innings as well) and batting deep with the tail made sure Sri Lanka had something on the scoreboard for bowlers to bowl at. Chanaka Welagedara who broke the back bone of SA batting in first innings with 5 wickets. Sanga with a century in the second innings. The second point is choosing to bat first under blue skies at Lords, may be correct decision considering 3 out of 6 top order batters were struggling for form (Thirimanne, Dimuth and Mahela) could have fallen easy prey to England fast men. Further had not been Eranga, leader of the pace pack, unfortunately wayward due to lack of match practice found his radar in first innings it could have been a different story add to possible first ball dismissal of Matt Prior.

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2014, 12:19 GMT

    Our batsmen must out up good scores .Then the choice is a draw or win depending on how good the pitch is for spin. Drop Thiramma if he does not score in first test and go back to Chandimal

  • Roshan on July 15, 2014, 11:50 GMT

    Expect the Saffers win the test series due to two reasons. Bowling - Not enough support for Herath in the spin dept and pace bowling isnt all that great either. Long tail - no team among the top six have as vulnerable-to-collapse-in-a-heap tendency as do the Lankans after the 6th wicket is down. Not even the experienced hands try to put any real effort to 'hang in there'. Unless Sanga, Mahela, Mathews and co bat it out and Herath really gets going we can expect a really tough time. Mind you the South Africans are very good and with Australia have the most balanced team out there. SL youngsters in the team are not yet up to it.

  • mohamed on July 15, 2014, 11:11 GMT

    I think srilanka will be blasted again by amla and co even in their home pitch. Waiting fir crackers of sa

  • Shamalka on July 15, 2014, 10:45 GMT

    Another legend in the making...He will brake all the SL and Asian captaincy records in years to come...

  • Android on July 15, 2014, 9:42 GMT

    There is a big challenge for Mathews and SL main batsmen they would have to show their responsibility, if they want to beat SA in tests they will work hard.

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2014, 8:33 GMT

    It is indeed a major challenge to Angelo & his team on home soil. Firstly, the batsman must show maximum application and test match temperament cutting out the cowboy stuff and trying to occupy the crease and building partnerships to get to a match winning total. Definitely the bowling department must show more skill in trying bowl a good line and length without giving anything away and restricting the strong and in form South African batting line up backed by agile fielding at all times. Given the past records one wonders whether the Galle pitch will last for more than 3 to 4 days? Inclement weather is also predicted. Good Luck Sri Lanka and we hope you have got rid of the complacency and most likely will come up with a good allround performance to win this game.

  • Anver on July 15, 2014, 7:56 GMT

    In modern day's cricket most of the late order batsmen (so called tailenders) can bat well & all capable of hitting fifties........ very recently we saw J.Anderson's 80+, Buweneshwar's twin fifties & M.Shami's 50+ etc etc... but the problem with SL team is once they loses 4-5 wkts, start collapsing & struggles thereafter.. I believe its a big issue & the coaching staffs must look in to this matter seriously & improve our tailenders batting technics also like other countries !!!!

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