Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 4th day July 27, 2014

A captain's sacrifice for the SL family

Angelo Mathews' batting pedigree is never in question, but it's his selfless nature as captain, putting his team above all else, that makes him a fine leader

"We are like a family," Angelo Mathews likes to say this when asked about the mood in his camp. Sometimes, you can almost hear the room cringe in unison. The camaraderie in the dressing room is obvious, but you wonder what makes Mathews use the word "family".

Do they accidentally use each other's toothbrushes on tour? Does Rangana Herath borrow Mathews' car without permission and return it with the petrol gauge on empty? Do Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene stumble back to the hotel late at night, throw up on the floor, and blame it on Dilruwan Perera?

Sri Lankan cricket is almost a throwback to the amateur era, with its bare bones backroom staff, resplendently outdated domestic system, and the genuine warmth and approachability of its top players. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the recent tour of England.

But even so, it is still a hard-edged environment. Cricketers are only as valuable to the team as their most recent run. In the age of the IPL, some are wealthy beyond measure, while others still grind out a middle-class existence. Over the last three years, Herath has been the most vital long-form player in that side, yet his life is about as modest as they come for sportsmen of his stature.

Still, Mathews says it with unyielding regularity, and seemingly, with unblinking sincerity. Perhaps he truly believes that it is true.

That would help explain the intensity of his commitment to the team's cause. As recently as early this year, Mathews had been an unconvincing captain, but even before that, it had been easy for some to cast him as a man too focused on individual achievement. But since the Tests in the UAE in January, Mathews has barely drawn a breath that has not in some way, been in service of the team.

On that tour, against Pakistan, when Mathews the Test batsman truly arrived in international cricket, he walloped a counterattacking 91 in Abu Dhabi while top-order debris burned around him, then dug in for a five-and-a-half hour 157 to save the Test.

While team-mates filled their boots on a featherbed in Chittagong on the next tour, Mathews delayed the second-innings declaration long enough for a struggling Dinesh Chandimal to get a century, then walked off the field, unbeaten on 43.

In England, he discovered an unreal dimension to his game. Fans will remember Sangakkara's 147 on the third day at Lord's, because of what triple figures on hallowed turf meant to the man, and for Jayawardene's sucker-hug at Sangakkara's milestone. But Mathews had batted with a comically inept tail for his 102. Those runs were prized from the opposition, and meant so much more in the grand scheme.

Screeds were written about Alastair Cook's tactical shortcomings after Mathews transformed the Headingley Test on day four. Not many noted the open-mouthed gawking at the ground, when Mathews crashed four after four through the spread field, or made laser-level incisions in the ring when he needed a single to keep the strike. If that 160 had come off an England blade, fawning songs would be sung about it into eternity.

Many have remarked at his average since becoming captain, which even since that ridiculous knock, has improved. After Sunday's 63 not out, it sits at 84.85. After 11 matches as captain, he is second only to the Don.

What is staggering about that average, is not just that almost all those runs have come at No.6 with tailenders who combust each time a bat is shoved in their hands, but that it also takes into account innings like his 18 in the second-dig at Lord's. On that occasion, Mathews shed every attacking inclination in his body to survive until the last four overs. When he edged one to slip, he seemed about ready to cry.

What is staggering about Mathews' average, is not just that almost all those runs have come at No.6 with tailenders who combust each time a bat is shoved in their hands, but that it also takes into account innings like his 18 in the second-innings at Lord's

"I was telling Angelo as well that his batting has been as good as anyone I have seen," Sangakkara said after day four in Colombo. "He bats in tough situations. It's very hard to find players for whom these things come so naturally. Angelo has done that. Ever since he came into the side he has done that for us.

"He has also improved his technique. He knows how to bat with the tail and I just love him watching bat. He is exceptional. He is batting better than anyone in the side and batting better than most batsmen in the world." After years of batting lower down the order and speaking of his desire to come in early, Mathews finally allowed himself to climb one place up at the SSC.

As Sri Lanka sped at four an over to set up the declaration, Mathews delivered what will now be termed a typically selfless innings. Before he drew the curtain on that knock, Jayawardene was seen on the players' balcony, asking him to declare.

In almost any other team in the world, such a scene would seem like a slight on the captain, or evidence of an underlying rift. But in Mathews "family", Jayawardene still helps set almost every field. In Mathews "family", the captain goes out and plays every kind of innings, from stonewall to sprint, on greentops and dustbowls alike.

It is a cheesy line, and a strange one, given the context. But in 2014, Mathews has embraced a collective cause, and played for the men around him with every cell and sinew in his body. Perhaps that is why he says "family" so much.

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