Feature

Unprecedented highs and haunting lows - Mathews' complicated journey to 100 Tests

If one looks back at his career and wonders what could have been, it's only because of the high bar he'd set himself

Angelo Mathews comes down the pitch during his career-best 160 against England at Headingley in 2014  •  Getty Images

Angelo Mathews comes down the pitch during his career-best 160 against England at Headingley in 2014  •  Getty Images

Angelo Mathews made it clear he was on the cusp of something special, when on the last day of the year before his year, he hit 91 off 127 balls. It was the first innings of a Test match in Abu Dhabi. Around him, a batting order still carrying the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, had buckled. Mathews struck boundaries in the company of the tail and dragged his team, kicking and screaming, just past 200.
In the second innings, Sri Lanka 179 runs in arrears, Mathews batted more than seven-and-a-half hours for 157 not out - a desperate salvo and an epic match-saving rearguard having been produced in the same match. This would be the trend. The more decorated batters up the order got to construct their innings in roughly the same way, innings to innings. Mathews, batting at No. 6 back then, was assigned a back-against-the-wall recovery effort one day, a steady consolidation gig the next, a get-out-there-and-smash-it-asap type job the match after that.
In 2014, Mathews did everything. On featherbeds. On dustbowls. In Galle. At Lord's. Crashing James Anderson through the covers one month, quelling Saeed Ajmal the next. There was no situation into which you could drop him that he wouldn't make something out of. Often, it was something extraordinary.
There are plenty of Mathews innings that live long in the memory from that year, but none more mythologised than his epic at Headingley. Sri Lanka had given up a 107-run first-innings lead, and were effectively 69 for 4 when Mathews walked to the crease. Sri Lanka needed to get their lead beyond 250 to make something of the match, but when Dinesh Chandimala and Dhammika Prasad perished in successive balls to leave the team seven down for 170, effectively, Mathews threw his helmet down in disgust.
Rangana Herath, though, ever the willing partner, managed to scratch out a start, and stuck by his side, as boundaries began to practically erupt out of Mathews' bat - drives down the ground, glances past the wicketkeeper, back-away slices through point, plant-the-foot bashes, over midwicket, England scrambling desperately at a venue in which they almost always dominate Asian teams. Together he and Herath blasted 149. They raised Sri Lanka from a losing position into a commanding one, which eventually, they turned into their first proper series win in England.
Mathews had not only hit 306 runs at an average of 76 in that series, he'd also taken four vital wickets in the first innings of this match. His hundred from the previous week, had got his name up on that honours board.
There was more outstanding batting to follow. A home series against South Africa - Dale Steyn running white-hot - in which Mathews was not dismissed for less than 63. A Galle Test against Pakistan that built to the most breathtaking finishes on the island in years. Sri Lanka were manically running down a target of 99 on the fifth evening, as daylight slipped away and a monstrous black cloud parked itself right above the stadium. With the grass banks full, and the fort ramparts packed out, Mathews walloped 25 runs off 13 balls, hooking Mohammad Talha into the crowd for one of his two sixes. Mere moments after Mathews struck the winning run, the cloud unleashed a mighty downpour, as a rambunctious party began on the banks and on the fort.
Next match, a vital innings of a radically different vibe - a 43 not out off 119, as he nursed Sri Lanka's second innings to set up a defendable target.
In the coloured clothing, Mathews had been spectacular too. He'd hit 40 off 23 in the T20 World Cup semi-final against West Indies, then conceded only 25 runs from his four overs in the final against India, taking the wicket of Ajinkya Rahane. In a hastily-arranged ODI series against India, he struck 92 not out and 139 not out, while routinely delivering cheap new-ball overs.
All up, across formats, Mathews hit 2778 runs, took 35 wickets, and was instrumental to some staggering triumphs; the T20 World Cup win, an Asia Cup victory, as well as that series against England. Sangakkara had a prolific year of his own, and would become Wisden's leading cricketer. But even by Sangakkara's own admission, Mathews had frequently had to prise his 2014 runs from the closed fists of oppositions in a way that Sangakkara never did.
Mathews is playing his 100th Test, something five from his island have accomplished, and in some ways, his has been the most complicated journey to that milestone. There have been contracts standoffs with the board, a long captaincy that contained haunting lows as well as staggering highs, a public war with a head coach, and of course, the injuries to his legs that would rule him out for months at a time.
And you might look at that batting average (a tick over 45) and the century count (13) and wonder if he's quite lived up to what he could have been. This is not a totally unfair question. But if in the last few years of Mathews' 100-Test journey, it has been said that he should have been rocking it with the Steven Smiths, Kane Williamsons, Joe Roots, and Virat Kohlis, the very notion only exists because you saw what he did in 2014 - when he had as incandescent a batting year as anyone has ever had for Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there has been too little celebration of how high he'd set the bar for himself.

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