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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on July 20, 2014, 11:41 GMT

    Congratulations to SA.! It shows how well Amla accessed our potential batting depth, against his bowlers on 4th & 5th day Galle deck! That is why he did not hesitate to give SL ample time (4 sessions) to score 370. He knew the target & the survival over 4 sessions were well beyond reach!

    The only positive thing that SL saw in this Test was, the long delayed recall of young Upul Tharanga to a National Squad! It instantly brought some relief to a team filled with Technically Brittle, Inexperienced youth among a very few experienced stalwarts about to retire! Among the young, only skipper Mathews found his feet against formidable sides. Without his contribution & Upul Tharanga`s valuable contribution, SL would have certainly faced an INNINGS DEFEAT against SA in the 1st Test!

  • Steven on July 20, 2014, 3:45 GMT

    I think Sri Lanka can win from here about 250 or to 260 odd to win from here in aday very gettable if they play positive not reckless pick the right balls to hit they have to start off trying to win if afew wickets fall then go defensive abit more I would like to see Mathew come in if not next certainly before thirimanne comes in so he can assess the situation from out in the middle and control things but credit to Amla for declaration it's about right for had they set 400 Sri Lanka prob wouldn't go for which would mean alame draw so even if Amla loses this I hope this doesn't put him off making good declarations like that cos the only way for him to get a result is by giving Sri Lanka a chance if they chase it down well played to them but 370 should have been enough with the quality of there bowlers I applaud brave captains both of them more often then not the result will go your way if it doesn't it should put you off from trying it again a result is better then draws

  • Dummy4 on July 20, 2014, 3:11 GMT

    An attacking batsman can set up a platform for a win just like Sanath did in that one off test in England. That time we had Murali who could run through any side given enough time. This is a different wicket. We are up against a bowling attack which has all bases covered. Perhaps the best bowling line up for any pitch condition anywhere in the world. But we have two masters at the wicket. The master of greatness who has nothing left to prove. Then there is little master Kaushal Silva, who was dispelling signs greatness in England. Today could be the day he could rise to the greatness. Just forget about winning. If this pair is still at the wicket by mid afternoon, we can think about it.

  • Dummy4 on July 20, 2014, 1:19 GMT

    SL will not lose from here. Win or a draw on the card.

  • pat on July 19, 2014, 19:06 GMT

    I am a Sri Lankan fan. But I doubt that Sri Lanka can win. We have been in such positions before but lost. What we see often is that when Sri lanka seems to be cursing nicely , we lose couple of quick wickets and then it is just a matter of time before we lose the match. If this pair can bat better part of the second session tomorrow , there is a slight chance. But other than that in my opinion it is a long shot to expect to win from this position.

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 18:26 GMT

    Morning session will be crucial, 60 runs without a wicket by lunch will do perfectly for sri lanka. but don't under estimate Dale and Philander.

  • Yohan on July 19, 2014, 18:17 GMT

    Sri Lanka needs a genuine aggressive batsman like Kusal Perera in the test side. After Sanath retired, SL had the aggressor in Dilshan. After Dilshans retirement SL continues to lack the aggression, the Sri Lankan style of cricket is no more there in the test team. On the other hand, being in the test side would immensely help Kusal Perera's limited overs batting.

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2014, 16:58 GMT

    Still long way to go and we have a depth in batting so get this golden opportunity and go for victory. If we can't win when the victory was given to us in a plate when can we win. This was a very generous declaration by Captain Amla. Very brave,sportsmanship and he has lot of confidence of his bowlers.

  • chandra on July 19, 2014, 16:50 GMT

    I love Angelo Mathews for what he does on the field. But I always thought his team doesn't have to concede so many runs if he sets a better field. I find field setting as the Angelo Mathews' greatest weakness. I keep noticing so many runs could be prevented if he sets a tighter field.

  • ESPN on July 19, 2014, 16:33 GMT

    One attacking batsman like sanath can change a match even in test match when a mammoth chase

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