“Players should be embarrassed with their own performances. Net practice means nothing if you don't get out and put runs on the board,” said a furious Nic Pothas, Sri Lanka's interim head coach after his side's horror performance — innings totals of 205 and 166 — in the second Test of the series against India.
From sparks of brilliance in UAE, where they beat Pakistan, Sri Lanka plummeted to new lows in Nagpur, conceding a whopping 610 runs in one innings — three hundreds and a double hundred included — and then folding twice with the bat to gift the game on a platter to the Indians.
Pothas was quick to point out the lack of leadership mentality in the Lankan side, something their predecessors were quite good at. Prominent among the faltering names is an unlikely candidate, one widely expected to be a father figure in Sri Lanka's transition period, Angelo Mathews.
Once a leading light in Sri Lanka's batting line-up, the all-rounder-turned-batsman has had forgettable few years in international cricket. Frequent leg-injuries have not only taken a toll on his bowling but also on his batting and temperament.
Since 2016, the former Sri Lankan skipper has amassed just 787 runs in Tests at an average of 27.13 with no hundreds in this time frame. Interestingly, this is in contrast to his series averages from late 2013 to 2016. In that particular period, Mathews piled up runs at will, averaging 67.00 (Sri Lanka in Bangladesh), 76.50 (Sri Lanka in England), 121.00 (South Africa in Sri Lanka), 99.00 and 53.80 (Pakistan in Sri Lanka), 56.50 (India in Sri Lanka) in consecutive series.
Since 2016, his 787 runs have contributed just 7.17% of Sri Lanka's total runs in Test cricket. However, during 2013-15, where he made 1533 runs at 76.65 in Test cricket, the percentage was 15.7.
Once a lynchpin in Sri Lanka's batting line-up, Mathews is, at present, close to becoming a liability with his inability to bowl and meagre returns with the bat. He is a shadow of the sturdy, composed middle-order batsman who helped Sri Lanka beat the English on their home turf three years ago. Mathews averaged a stunning 76.50 in the series and single-handedly gave Lanka an unlikely series win.
That year — 2014 — he was Sri Lanka’s Cricketer of the Year, their best One-Day International (ODI) batsman, and shared the Test batsman award with Kumar Sangakkara. He was also shortlisted for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricketer of the Year and ICC Test Cricketer of the Year awards but lost by a whisker to Mitchell Johnson in both categories. That didn't deter the ICC from naming him the captain of the ICC Test team of the year.
He was riding a crest that seemingly had no end until it all came crashing down a year later. Constant injuries played a part but even then he has managed to play in 15 of the 21 Tests Sri Lanka have played in since 2016.
"It is tough when you are not playing continuously, especially to try and strike a rhythm when you do make a comeback”, Pothas voiced his support for Mathews despite coming down hard on the all-rounder.
However, he was also quick to point out the need for runs. “As a player, your currency is runs, wickets and catches. You can do all you like but if you are not producing them, obviously there will be repercussions. That's the world of professional sport."
It is no irony that Sri Lanka's woes have coincided with Mathews’ paucity of runs.
When the 30-year-old was grinding out runs at a stupendous rate in the period of 2013-15, Sri Lanka won 6 and lost just 4 Tests, a win/loss ratio of 1.50, second only to South Africa.
In contrast, since 2016, when Mathews’ form has gone on a downward spiral, Sri Lanka have lost 10 of their 21 Tests and have a win/loss ratio of 0.90, including five innings losses.
The prolonged rebuilding phase since the retirements of Mahela Jayawardena, Kumar Sangakkara and Tilakaratne Dilshan has taken a toil on Mathews. His decision to step down from captaincy, something he did with amazing ease, came as a result of some painful performances by the team.
He probably shouldn't have quit considering his success with the bat when donning the captaincy mantle. An average of over 50 in more than 30 Tests signifies numbers of a standout skipper who leads from the front. Arjuna Ranatunga, the former World Cup-winning skipper, was of the opinion that the Board should never have accepted Mathews’ resignation.
“Mathews is the best captain I have seen after Ranjan Madugalle. When he said that he wanted to quit, SLC should have told him to hang in there without throwing the towel in. If I had any say, I would have told him that this is not the time to quit,”, Ranatunga had said.
It certainly wasn't the right time to quit. Sri Lanka were grappling for leaders and senior players to lift them up from the crevasse and take them forward, and what does their most senior player do? He goes into hiding, shying away from responsibility and churning out poor numbers with the bat.
Mathews’ resignation further affected Sri Lanka's resuscitation process although Chandimal led them quite admirably to a series victory in UAE. The all-rounder missed that series and returned for the Indian tour, only to make 84 runs in four innings at an average of 21.00.
Bizarrely, he was shifted to No 4 in the batting line-up despite his meagre returns, while the man in form, Dinesh Chandimal the captain, hid himself down at No 5. It was impromptu planning and shoddy execution. The recipe for failure was written all over the blueprint prepared by the Lankans.
If they had done a bit of analysis, they would have known that Mathews is a much more dangerous batsman when he has a platform set by the top-order. For instance, when he was in the form of his life in 2013-2015, he had the presence of a rampant Kumar Sangakkara, a sublime Mahela Jayawardena and a better averaging Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva above him.
Contrary to that, the current crop of players batting above Mathews have been quite vulnerable, and more often than not, the former skipper is left playing a fire-fighting role. The contrasting statistics show that Mathews should probably have played below Chandimal in this series. That said, his woeful form is affecting the team's performances, and Sri Lanka need him to fire sooner than later.