People had earmarked Angelo Mathews as the golden boy of Sri Lankan cricket a decade and a half ago when he was breaking all sorts of school records at St. Joseph’s. He was the overwhelming choice to lead Sri Lanka Under-19 when the country hosted the ICC Youth World Cup in 2006. Granted a scholarship to play league cricket in England by the British High Commission in Colombo later that year, Mathews was fast-tracked into the senior side after a brief stint with Sri Lanka ‘A’. The impact he had was massive.
It seemed that the stage was set for Mathews to take the team to the next phase after the retirements of the big-three - Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan. He was on a rollercoaster ride for the next few years despite tough times for the team. No one dared question his place in the side. But then suddenly there was a rude wake-up call.
Sri Lankan cricket had hit new lows in the last two years losing to lowly ranked teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Their performance in the recent Asia Cup was the most shocking. Sri Lanka’s campaign in the six-nation tournament ended even before India’s had started. A first-round exit after losing to Bangladesh and Afghanistan was a bitter pill to swallow. Hours after the team landed in Colombo, the 31-year-old was stripped of his captaincy. That was expected. But what was not expected was his axing from the ODI side.
Mathews is Sri Lanka’s most successful batsman in ODI cricket averaging 42, better than that of his mentor Kumar Sangakkara (41). Moreover, in recent years, he had been in red-hot form in ODI cricket having averaged 47 (in 2016), 63 (in 2017) and 52 (in 2018). So why axe him from a form in which not many Sri Lankans were fit to hold a candle to him?
It was perhaps the wakeup call that was needed! Go sort your fitness out was the call. Coach Chandika Hathurusingha and Mathews go a long way. The Head Coach was in charge of Sri Lanka ‘A’ when Mathews performed for him a decade ago and Hathurusignha knows what works for Mathews. So perhaps it was his way of getting the best out of his senior most players.
Since being dropped from the side, Mathews has worked extremely hard on his game. The key area for him was to lose weight and having done it, his game has improved further. In Wellington, you saw him pushing hard while running between the wickets and he hardly played a false stroke in his 120 off 323 balls during the seven and half hour marathon to save the game. against New Zealand this week.
After the axe, Mathews has played in four Test matches in which he has produced four half-centuries and the match-saving hundred in Wellington. The unbeaten 120 was worth in gold as Sri Lanka had little hope to save the Test match. Having conceded a first innings lead of almost 300 runs, it looked as if Sri Lanka were fighting a losing battle when they lost three wickets cheaply.
Mathews then teamed up with young Kusal Mendis, batting through four sessions as they added 274 runs for the fourth wicket without being dismissed. Having saved the Wellington game, the Sri Lankans will travel to Christchurch as a confident outfit.
For all its charm as one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world with Mount Cook and Mount Victoria in the backdrop, Wellington can test a batsman’s resolve. The strong chilly winds that you experience here at times make players sick. Mathews picked Kumar Sangakkara's brains prior to the start of the first Test at the Basin Reserve on how to succeed at the venue.
No Sri Lankan has mastered the New Zealand conditions like Sangakkara who has averaged 61 in Tests and 45 in ODIs in the Kiwiland, above his career averages of 57 and 41.
“The last time we played at the Basin, Kumar (Sangakkara) scored a fabulous double hundred. Prior to that, he had scored a match-winning 150 in 2006. So I was chatting to him to find out his mindset during those knocks and his thought process,” Mathews told Firstpost.
“We spoke about having different shots for each of the New Zealand bowlers. These were the exact bowlers who were playing when we were here in 2015. Getting to know about how he started off and stuff is important. Then obviously my experience also came in handy, “Mathews added.
The hundred was celebrated in style as Mathews turned towards the dressing room and did a few push-ups. “I don’t want to get deep into it. The message is clear,” he added.
His axing from shorter formats of the game obviously has been short-lived. Mathews has been retained for the ODI leg of the New Zealand tour and he is very much in plans for the 2019 World Cup. With Lasith Malinga being named the captain just for New Zealand ODIs and T20s, it could be an indication that Sri Lanka will fall back on their trusted leader for cricket’s showpiece event in May next year.