Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Galle, 4th day July 19, 2014

Mathews the captain reveals attacking side

Mathews has shown signs that he is beginning to ditch the conservatism he has become associated with - judging by his field placings - and begun to follow the footsteps of his famous predecessors

January. Sharjah. Days 4 and 5. Sri Lanka are 1-0 up in the series and have a 87-run first-innings lead. In his first major assignment as Test captain, Angelo Mathews orders his troops to pull the steel shutters down. They score at a crawl towards the end of the fourth day, hitting only 45 runs in one session, on a flat surface. The next morning they are wiped out and Pakistan launch a famous chase, charging to victory in the gloom.

Sri Lanka's players are distraught, but their fans have progressed from disappointment, to anger. They really want Sri Lanka to win Test series. But not like this. Sri Lanka bowl a foot outside leg stump to halt the scoring rate. They plead with the umpires to go off for bad light, as the opponents near the climax of their scintillating onslaught. Pretty soon their fans' anger turns to disgust.

Sri Lanka's two greatest captains have left an indelible mark, not just on the men they captained, but on the psyche of the Sri Lanka cricket fan. Arjuna Ranatunga's bellyful of self-belief, with an aura to match the gait, formulated the attack-first mindset and drilled it into his team. Even beyond the famous opening pair that is associated with the 1996 triumph, others lived by the sword. When both openers had fallen in the first over, Aravinda de Silva played a blistering 66 in the semi-final against India. Has the one-day game ever seen a better counterattack?

Two years later, Sri Lanka were given nothing more than a one-off Test in England. Ranatunga saw a flat deck and sent the opposition in. When Sri Lanka had wrapped up what is perhaps still their best-ever away victory, Ranatunga's reasoning was barely believable. He had put the opposition in, he said, because he did not want Muttiah Muralitharan to be too tired when Sri Lanka enforced the inevitable follow-on. Opponents may still think him as bull-headed. In Sri Lanka, learning of his uncompromising belligerence and his finger-wagging defiance of umpire Ross Emerson, have now become national rites-of-passage.

Seven years after Ranatunga's captaincy, Mahela Jayawardene assumed the helm and embraced attack with intensity and purpose. He is less domineering than Ranatunga. More forgiving, though he did his own finger-wagging too. But the plans he dreamt up in a moment, on the field, were little works of art on their own. The leg slip and gully came back into cricket. Short mid-offs and mid-ons abounded. Under his guidance, the men around the bat for Murali were not just vultures hovering above a prospective meal, they were co-instigators of the action; a living, breathing, sharpened phalanx, almost as central to Sri Lanka's threat as the man whirring the ball in.

On day four in Galle, Mathews who until very recently was among modern captaincy's defensive brigade, found his side on the sharp end of a 163-run difference in the first innings, on a deteriorating pitch. His best quick bowler of the past six months was effectively out of action with stitches in his hand. Sri Lanka only had three other frontline bowlers and his lead spinner had not seemed his menacing best for some time.

No one could really have blamed Mathews for setting a tight ring field, putting men on the fence and employing maybe one token slip. Instead, he attacked. The spin bowlers came on early and Mathews left vast spaces on one side of the pitch, daring them to hit against the turn. Occasionally, the batsmen would do so with some success, finding the fence, piling on the lead, but aside from minor tinkering, Mathew would not forsake his aggression.

When Dilruwan Perera bowled to Hashim Amla, Mathews had set an 8-2 legside field, with a short leg, a slip, a leg gully and a short mid-on. Amla advanced on 22 and attempted to drive Perera through the offside, but mustered only an inside edge as the ball dipped and gripped. Short mid-on completed the dismissal diving to his left. Even when AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock were surging forward, even when the few men on the boundary were being continually tested, Mathews pressed the attack. Most teams would immediately begin thinking about the draw at 163 runs behind, but even facing 350, Sri Lanka dared to play like they could still win.

When Amla made his sporting declaration, Upul Tharanga batted like he was chasing eight an over. Kumar Sangakkara was not much better. It may not make much sense. It may look foolish if South Africa knock the hosts over on Sunday. But it was cricket Sri Lanka's fans will enjoy, with plans that will resonate and attitudes befitting the heroes of time gone by.

Maybe this is what five months of winning can do to a side. At Headingley they came back from a 108-run first-innings deficit, so on their home turf, they feel they can overturn a shortfall only 55 runs more than that. Just two quick wickets can completely alter the outlook of the match, and put the smell of blood in Dale Steyn's flared nostrils. But Mathews may be banking on the memory of his team's Lord's defiance, if things go wrong early in the day, as well as his form. After play, coach Marvan Atapattu spoke of the mentality that has developed in his dressing room since day five at Sharjah.

"In the last few months the thing we have learned is that we don't go down without a fight," Atapattu said. "The team atmosphere and environment that we have is: If we want to make a change, we have to fight from any situation. That has been inculcated to the dressing room, that has been inculcated to the system, and people have started believing in it. I won't guarantee that it will give us results all the time. Neither will last month's results give us the results tomorrow. But I can assure you the thinking has changed a bit. We believe we can win a few more Test matches than we have won in the recent past."

Sri Lanka face a mountain on day five. They will have to shatter ground records, their own chasing record and defy the best pace attack in the world if they are to get within even touching distance of 370. South Africa will be mortified to come away from Galle with anything other than a victory. But even if the home side loses, a young captain has shown signs that he is beginning to ditch the conservatism he has become associated with, and begun to follow the footsteps of the men who have left him such a rich legacy. He too has a long way to go.

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