The Mad Max. A ruthless artist with the magic of da Vinci in his wrists, Aravinda de Silva, popularly dubbed ‘The Mad Max’ ruled Sri Lankan cricket during its honeymoon period. When he walked in to bat on his debut way back in 1984 against New Zealand, Sri Lanka had all of six victories (all six in ODIs) in World cricket.
When he hung up his boot, after nearly two decades, he had established Sri Lanka as one of the top tier nations in cricket, given them a World Cup win and manned their middle-order like a dutiful soldier.
Almost 15 years since de Silva hung up his boots, Angelo Mathews, free of captaincy and bowling duties, has a similar responsibility on his shoulders. Sri Lanka have rapidly declined since the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene and are rummaging through the domestic mess for a stable middle-order batsman.
The time has come for Mathews, who had silently racked up runs behind the shadows of the two stalwarts, to take on the burden and show the path for this lost Lankan side.
He was the leading run-scorer when India toured the island nation in 2015, but two years later the story is completely different. He has compiled a total of 147 runs across the two Tests at 36.57 with just one half-century.
In fact, since the 2015 series against India, where he averaged 56.50 across three Tests, Mathews was part of seven Test campaigns, and has never touched a series average above 40. This is in stark contrast to his seven series’ before India’s 2015 tour, averaging above 50 in six of those. His last Test century also came in that series against India two years ago.
All of this suggests how Mathews has waned off in the recent past. Since 2016 his numbers are dismal in Test cricket. He averages under 30 in 12 Test matches and hasn't scored a single hundred.
He needn’t look far for inspiration. Aravinda de Silva, who watched from the stands as Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis forged a rare fjghtback at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in the second Test, is someone Mathews needs to look up to. The legendary Sri Lankan cricketer is someone Mathews idolises and he even named de Silva in his all-time XI at No 4 a few months back.
What separated de Silva from the rest of the Sri Lankan players of his generation was his fearless, never-say-die attitude. He was nonchalant, unassuming yet mighty effective. A brilliant player of pace and spin alike, de Silva could wilt attacks with his flamboyance and elegance.
Remember his 1996 World Cup semi-final knock at a jam-packed Eden Gardens?
He was playing in front of a huge crowd, a mere fraction of which supported Sri Lanka — who were one for two when he walked in. He never allowed the situation to overcome him and went about plotting a calculated assault on the hapless Indian bowlers.
The innings was a mix of power, timing and precision. Not once did he seem overwhelmed by the occasion. Not once did he allow the Indians a way back into the game. It was sheer joy for a Sri Lankan supporter on that day, watching de Silva compile an unparalleled innings in the semi-finals. He exceeded his own expectations with another outstanding knock in the finals against the Australians to give Sri Lanka a maiden World Cup.
In conclusion, de Silva lifted Sri Lankan cricket. He gave it his everything but never altered from his fearless, brave methods. Yet he carved a name for himself, rising on par with the Jayasuriyas and Ranatungas of the era.
Mathews needs to don a de Silva mask if Sri Lanka's downfall needs to halt. He is their trusted guardian in the middle-order but has failed to step up quite a lot of times. Surrounded by a host of vulnerable, untested youngsters, Mathews has miserably struggled to match his own standards in recent times. He should perhaps shed his inhibitions and trust his natural game, which is elegant and beautiful.
All he needs is to do is to think of himself as the mentor in the Lankan batting line-up. True he may not be able to single-handedly carry the side to a victory at Pallekele over the ruthless Indians, but he can set an example. He showed in his scything attack on Ashwin and Jadeja at Galle that he still has it in him. Yet, his scores since the 83 in the first innings at Galle read 2, 26 and 36. For this faltering side, Mathews is an angel, like de Silva was in the 1990s; one who can lift them from the ashes.
He showed good temperament and composure at SSC in the second Test, but faded off after getting starts. Those won't do. In the absence of some real big names, Mathews finally needs to come into his own for Sri Lanka. Combating Ashwin and Jadeja on these dust bowls requires application, patience and proper planning. The young guns in the Sri Lankan line-up have found little to no guidance on playing these master-class spin bowlers. They need to be shown the way and quickly. Step up, Mathews! Sri Lanka needs you!