Mathews rues Galle collapse
Sports teams like to make clean breaks from bad results - to forget failure and renew focus on the future. But as in life, mistakes have clear consequences in cricket. As he reflected on Sri Lanka's series loss, it was the poor outing in Galle that Angelo Mathews kept returning to.
The 1-0 lead that South Africa had won there allowed the visitors to pull the shutters down and pursue a draw at SSC from as early as the second day.
It was a dull brand of cricket, but an effective one. Sri Lanka had been set 370 to chase in the first Test, and were defeated attempting the target. In Colombo, South Africa had 369 to make in 127 overs, but they chose to defend their lead instead, and earned the result they had sought.
"As I always said, when you're playing the No.2 ranked team in the world, you have to be on top of your game," Mathews said. "Especially in Galle - that first innings batting collapse - we couldn't get close to their score, and that actually cost us the game. That one game cost us the series. We've always played really well against the opponents in Galle, and we couldn't do that really well this time."
Discouragingly for Sri Lanka, it has been their first assignments at home in 2014 that have also brought their first series losses of the year. They had walloped South Africa in an ODI series in 2013, but were beaten on this tour.
While the Tests were always going to be more difficult for the hosts, they had fancied themselves against a side that had not won a series on the island since before Sri Lanka's cricket became fully professional.
"Right from the start I said we need to be sharpen our games to win against them. Simply because we play at home and we know the conditions, they are not going to lose a game of cricket for us," Mathews said. "We need to put a lot of effort and do a lot of hard work to beat them. Unfortunately they played the better cricket in Galle."
Both in England and throughout South Africa's visit, Sri Lanka have yielded significant ground towards the back end of each innings. Opposition tail-enders proved hard to remove at SSC, with the likes of Imran Tahir and Dale Steyn batting for over an hour in the first innings, and defying Sri Lanka in their second. Meanwhile, the hosts' last six wickets had fallen for 36 runs in the first innings.
"We found it really hard to get the tailenders out, both in England and here against South Africa. They all can bat and hang around. With these conditions, their tailenders batted pretty well. We need to make sure that our bowlers are getting batting practice as much as they can, and get involved in scoring runs and hanging in there. If we can improve that part as well, we can improve a lot more."
Before then, however, Sri Lanka's first-innings score had been driven by Mahela Jayawardene's 165, with Mathews and debutant wicketkeeper batsman Niroshan Dickwella also contributing. Those scores had allowed Sri Lanka to achieve a position of dominance in the match, but they could not translate that into victory.
"I'm happy with the way we fought back in this match," Mathews said. "From winning the toss to building a decent first innings score - that was one of the best knocks I have seen from Mahela. He was positive right from the word go. Niroshan Dickwella looked very calm and composed. He is a great find and the credit should go to the selectors for the risk they took. The way Kumar Sangakara batted was another positive. It was a great effort."
Mathews also reserved praise for Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera, who between them, bowled 171.5 overs in the match, and at times seemed the only Sri Lanka bowlers capable of taking wickets. They shared 17 scalps between them.
"Special mention to Rangana Herath and Dilrwuan Perera as well. They were unbelievable. It was going to be hard to dismiss them, but they came up with a solid effort. They played their hearts out and tried to win the game for us, but unfortunately we couldn't."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando