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'I don't mind losing a few on the way to a win'

In the space of 23 months at Headingley, Sri Lanka went from series winners to a rabble bundled out twice in the equivalent of under a day's play. For Angelo Mathews, the journey was from a "personal triumph", as Wisden termed the Test series win in 2014, to a figure decried as lethargic and inert.

"The [2016] England Test tour was pretty poor from our side. We didn't do well," Mathews says. "But we kept improving day by day."

He isn't happy about one aspect of the team's performance, though. "There's a lot to improve in our fielding. It is still not up to the mark," he says. No one who witnessed Sri Lanka's shoddy catching in England would disagree. Nor is the problem new. "The way our guys are fielding, they are carrying excess weight and we are in shambles," Jerome Jayaratne said last September, during his stint as interim head coach.

"It's not about quantity - we do a lot of fielding practice," Mathews says. "It's just the nerves sometimes that the boys have, but hopefully we can all get over it. We've made a few mistakes on the field in the last couple of matches."

Mathews' captaincy came under scrutiny too. On occasion - most strikingly while Moeen Ali and Steven Finn were adding 72 for the ninth wicket at Chester-le-Street - his leadership appeared devoid of energy or imagination. His strategy seemed to be to ensure Finn was facing the first ball of the next over, yet Moeen was able to take singles far too easily off the fifth or sixth ball of each over.

"If I think there is a suitable captain and a better captain than me, I'll talk to the selectors and step down" On his future as T20 captain

The sense of a captain who lets matters drift, sleepwalking from a good position to one of peril, was familiar. Sri Lanka began 2015 by allowing New Zealand to recover from 159 for 5 to 524 for 5 declared in Wellington. At home against Pakistan later that year, Sri Lanka allowed a score of 96 for 5 to become 417 all out in Galle; Pakistan then chased 377 in Pallekele to seal the series. At Headingley, they allowed England to recover from 83 for 5 to 298, and at Lord's England got to 416 from 84 for 4.

Yet Mathews rejects the label that he is a conservative captain. "You try to be cautious sometimes, but I think losing a game by trying to win one is key. I always go for a win and don't mind losing a few on the way to a win," he says.

"I'm still learning as captain. I've done the job for three years but every day you learn. You learn through your mistakes. It's not an easy road, it's tough, but as long as I enjoy my captaincy, I'll try and be positive and go for wins. You've got to try and embrace the pressure and not think too much about it. You go out there and enjoy yourself and everything else will look after itself."

However, one cannot dispute the fact that Mathews' batting has been transformed for the better since he took on the responsibility of captaincy. In Test cricket he averages 57.48 as captain from 52 innings, compared to 39.71 from 50 innings before he was captain. He has scored six of his seven centuries after taking over as captain. He also averages five runs more with the bat as captain in ODIs, and his bowling average is lower in both Tests and ODIs when he is leading the side.

"After I got the captaincy I've done pretty well with the bat," he says. "I try not to put myself under a lot of pressure. I just try to go out there, be positive and enjoy the game. When you're captaining, you're not just the captain, you're a player as well. So when you're batting, you're a batsman, when you're bowling, you're a bowler. I try to stick to that and on the field try and concentrate on my performances."

As captain, Mathews has witnessed transformation in the Sri Lanka side. He was handed the job three years ago when Mahela Jayawardene resigned, wanting to give Mathews the chance to grow into the role while he and Kumar Sangakkara were still around. Now with both retired, Mathews leads a team attempting to forge a new identity.

"The guys have to take responsibility. We don't have the senior players now but we have a good bunch of players who are willing to go out there and fight it out, so it's pretty pleasing," Mathews says. "We've got so many players who are helping each other out. They're throwing in a lot of ideas as well. We've got a lot of younger guys but they're not afraid of throwing their thoughts in, which is very positive from our point of view." He cites Dinesh Chandimal, who at 26 has already been vice-captain for three years, as a particular source of support.

Chandimal might soon succeed Mathews as T20 captain. When Lasith Malinga resigned just before the World T20, Mathews was appointed to replace him. He became captain in all three formats: an onerous, indeed unsustainable, burden in today's age. Mathews hinted as much when he said, "I was not mentally prepared to take up captaincy in the tournament", just before the World T20.

And he suggests that he might not be T20 captain for much longer. "If I think there is a suitable captain and a better captain than me, I'll talk to the selectors and step down. If somebody comes through the ranks and is doing really well and is up for the challenge, well, I'll obviously give it to him."

"We've got so many players who are helping each other out. They're throwing in a lot of ideas as well"

A little like Nasser Hussain's and Duncan Fletcher's alliance for England, coach Graham Ford and Mathews aim to put the days of selection issues behind and empower a young generation to lead the side forward. Mathews' admiration for Ford is palpable. "He's put a lot of thoughts on the table and we discuss combinations and strategies all the time. He's been a wonderful coach throughout."

For all the concern about Sri Lanka's recent underwhelming form, Mathews senses a tough new team in the making. "You try and share your experiences with the younger guys so that they can take it on and move forward when we retire. It's all about passing it on to the younger generation," he says. "We see lots of guys taking responsibility, now that we don't have the big guns," citing Kusal Perera and Dasun Shanaka.

"We are trying not to chop and change too much. We are trying to pick a set of players and keep them for as long as possible. There will be changes here and there but you try to stick to one combination and give them a good run."

Mathews is convinced that experience and selectorial faith will ensure more moments like Headingley 2014, and fewer like Headingley 2016.