Optimism for Mathews as SL are reborn

Angelo Mathews goes for the pull AFP

At the end of Sri Lanka's debut Test, "The baby," David Frith wrote, "had been delivered without complications." Sri Lanka have now won 66 Tests since that day, but on this tour, they are being reborn.

A flood of new personnel are either in, or on the cusp of the team, a pair of young batsmen have taken up the leadership, and the Murali-era, during which Sri Lanka reaped so much of their success, is a distant memory. Like in 1982, the new Sri Lanka have survived their first assignment without complications, but only just.

Since he assumed the captaincy, things have not worked out for Angelo Mathews as well as he would have hoped. A major contract dispute first threatened to derail the series a week before it began, and saw the players vilified by some. Then his side failed to secure an expected victory at their favourite venue in the first Test, when instruction from the team to prepare a good batting track produced, in Mathews own words, "absolutely a road". And at the Premadasa, Sri Lanka were made to fight hard for most of the first three days, before Bangladesh's efforts subsided dramatically on the fourth.

Mathews seems the kind of cricketer whose game is well insulated from outside pressure, but after the match was won, he admitted he had felt the heat after Galle. It may have been the seasoned hands, in Rangana Herath and Kumar Sangakkara, who did the most to deliver this win, but he and his young side have survived their baptism, and that, at least, will be a source of some relief.

"We were under pressure before the match," Mathews said. "We had to win this game and we knew that we could do it. The talent the guys have and also the professionalism the team shows is unbelievable. We have the potential. We just had to put our act together and try and do it on the field. We wanted to win the series 2-0. We couldn't do that but I thought we played some really good cricket in this Test and won."

As a captain, Mathews also emerged from the Tests with his reputation largely unscathed, though there were puzzling moves on his part. Suranga Lakmal was given the new ball in the first innings, when Shaminda Eranga would have been the more obvious threat to the batsmen. Then when Lakmal had bowled his first two overs for just one run, Mathews took him out of the attack and brought himself on. Lakmal rarely bowled as well as that for the remainder of the Test. Mathews trend of replacing bowlers who were getting into their work, worsened from vexing to frustrating by the end of the Test.

"Mathews' field placings were largely impressive, occasionally even inspired"

But his field placings were largely impressive, occasionally even inspired. Mid-on and mid-off stayed inside the circle through most of Herath's overs, and in each innings an advancing batsman had his outside edge beaten, and caught out of his crease. Having observed Sri Lanka's most gifted tactician, Mahela Jayawardene, at work over the last year, Mathews also seems to have a good grip on the art of in-out fields while the spinners are in operation. The bowlers had their fair-share of input too, and were more vocal about what they wanted than they might have been if Jayawardene was still leading, but there was enough of Mathews' authority on the final product, while he was careful not to overreach before he proved himself an astute strategist to his teammates.

Sri Lanka do not have any Test cricket until October, when they play Zimbabwe away, but Mathews was aware of the major challenges the Test side faced in the long-term. Save for Herath, Sri Lanka's attack veers from mediocre to toothless, and the three frontline pace bowlers and Mathews took only six wickets between them in the match, with Tillakaratne Dilshan required to bowl 25 overs in the second innings. The catching woes that plagued the side in Australia have not been corrected either.

"As a bowling unit we didn't perform well, and we have room for improvement," Mathews said. "The catching is very important in all three formats as well, and we need to show improvement there.

"As a team we can improve because after the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan, it has been Rangana Herath who has figured largely in all our victories with many wickets. He cannot perform alone but can be successful because of the pressure created at the other end."

When the next Tests eventually roll around, Mathews may not have the support of the seniors who carried the team through this series. Dilshan is almost certain not to tour, and Sangakkara and Jayawardene may opt out, or be rested, as they have been on previous tours of Zimbabwe. The first series may be safe, but given the paucity of his attack, and the inexperience in his batting order, Mathews and Sri Lanka have a challenging road ahead, if they are to fulfil their ambitions of becoming one of the top three Test sides.