Since Angelo Mathews took over as captain of the Sri Lankan Test and One-Day International teams, his batting has flourished, signifying a change in his approach to the game. Just 27, Mathews’s dream run, coupled with Sri Lanka’s surge, has already triggered massive expectations and the question as to what heights he will achieve as a leader.
Chatting with Wisden India, Mathews talks about his evolution as a batsman and captain, the lessons he has learnt from Mahela Jayawardene, and more. Exceprts:
When you took over as captain, Sri Lanka were going through their lowest ebb in Test cricket. Did that ever bog you down?
I never took it that way. In fact, it helped me for the better. The challenge was certainly huge for me at that time, no doubt about that. The team was also going through a crisis regarding the player contracts. So taking a huge responsibility at such a young age, I was proud of it. It was an honour to captain Sri Lanka and I just wanted to do my best as a captain and as a player. I had to live up to the expectations of my team.
When you were made captain, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan, who had all led Sri Lanka earlier, were in the team. Did that affect the dynamics in any way?
They had played the game enough when I was appointed as the captain, and having led the side before, they understood how it works when a young guy takes over. In fact, they were a great source of inspiration for the past couple of years. I never had to handle them any differently. They’ve always advised me a lot since that start of my stint as a captain, helping the younger players in the side, and ensuring that the team is always going on the right track.
You don’t seem to be fazed by match situations. Where does that come from?
There is pressure when I go in to bat or bowl. The nature of the game is such, and everyone feels the pressure, I’m not different. It is just that I don’t show my emotions that much on the field. People tend to make mistakes, but I try not to be rude to them. I haven’t trained myself into keeping calm or absorbing pressure, it just comes naturally to me, having led teams since a very young age.
How do your see your bowling coming along?
I had a few injuries in the past but I’ve overcome them, and I’m trying my best to manage my workload. Playing all three formats of the game as an allrounder is very challenging. I haven’t bowled that much in Test matches for quite some time now. So I try to ensure that I bowl my full quota overs in limited overs at least. If you look at it, I’ve tried bowling as much as I can in Tests, but on other days when we don’t have much cricket happening, I try and manage my workload by not bowling while training.
Has the split captaincy – Lasith Malinga leading the Twenty20 International team – affected your game in any way?
Oh, it hasn’t affected me at all. Whether you are the captain or not, your role in the team is predetermined. The team expects a lot from you as a player. So whether you captain one format and don’t lead the side in the other format, it doesn’t affect me. It is the selectors’ decision and I respect that. I’ll just try and take on all the challenges that I face.
Did you have to make any specific adjustments to bat with the tail?
Not really. When I am batting with the tail, I try and be smart by facing most of the balls initially and not giving them a lot of strike. But once they settle in, I slowly give them strike and that’s how they become confident about themselves. So it’s all about being smart. And I think we have quite a few bowlers who can hang in there with the bat; I get a lot of support from them.
I have also come up the order since the Pakistan series; I moved No. 5 after Mahela Jayawardene’s retirement. I am quite comfortable batting at that position. But whatever my team needs me to do, I’ll do that. I’m not too fussy about batting with the tail.
A maiden Test century is always special but you were criticised for batting slowly and reducing Sri Lanka’s chances when you got your first century (105 not out against Australia in Colombo in 2011). Do you have any regrets?
Not really. I couldn’t have approached it any better. We had lost two quick wickets and I had to bat with that tail. So we had to make a lot of runs first to win the game. Another factor was rotating the strike, since I was batting with the bowlers. So I had to score most of the runs and also ensure that the non-striker doesn’t get out. I was in a 50-50 position then, I had to keep scoring and also keep the wickets in hand.
Your outstanding form with the bat has coincided with an upward surge for the team.
The past twelve months or so have been very good for me as a player. In whatever way I can contribute to the team, be it my batting, bowling or fielding, I just try to be my best. I may be a captain of the team, but I understand that I’m a player first, so there needs to be a contribution from my side as well. I’ve made efforts to contribute as much as I can as a player, concentrating on my batting and working hard towards it.
You’ve also got the best out of your players …
We all make collective decisions but, of course, I take the final call. There are so many thoughts on the table from the senior players and the younger ones, and some of these guys in the side have been playing for a long time, they’re seasoned campaigners of the game and they know what they are doing. We guys back each other whenever one goes through a rough patch. Rangana Herath has been brilliant in the past couple of years and also Dhammika Prasad, whenever he gets the opportunity, he’s performed really well. So I can’t take credit for anything, it is their hard work.
How is Sri Lanka coping with life after Mahela Jayawardene in Test matches?
It is a massive gap to fill. And I think no one can just walk into his place. He’s done brilliant in the past 17 years and he has contributed immensely to Sri Lanka cricket. So I think it’s just impossible to fill his gap, but having said that, there are a few exciting young players who have come through the ranks and I hope they’ll live up to the expectations.
Dinesh Chandimal has been struggling for almost a year now. What has gone wrong?
Everyone goes through a bad patch, and Chandimal has been around for a long time now. We all know that he is a very good player, he performed and impressed very quickly when he started off. Hopefully he’ll get back to form when the right time comes.
You also rallied behind Sachithra Senanayake …
As a captain and teammate; it was my responsibility. He is working extremely hard. He keeps bowling a lot of overs the entire day to try and get his action right. As a team we all are right behind him, we know that he’ll come back strong. These things happen to a sportsperson, it’s up to them to take it in their stride and come back strong. As a team, we can only support them.
Sri Lanka’s slow batting in the Sharjah Test in January this year was criticised as well – what did you learn from that?
I’ve always felt that captaincy is a learning process. We learn from our mistakes. I agree that it was a big mistake to be negative in Sharjah. Since then we’ve approached our games in a very positive way, so it was good lesson. I’m not saying we wanted to draw the Sharjah game but we played quite negatively. We have learnt quite a lot from that game and it helped us a lot when Pakistan came here.
The England tour seemed to have brought the best out of you as batsman and as captain? What mental adjustments did you have to make during that tour?
When you play against England in England you have to be very positive. Especially as a batsman, one has to go with the mindset of scoring runs and not so much defending balls. You have to be very aggressive and positive against them. The whole team did extremely well; winning all three formats in England was tremendous and I think that was one of our greatest achievements as a Test side. It was a great effort by the whole team.
Talk us through your innings at Headingley?
I just wanted to be positive. We had no way out, other than scoring runs. We just didn’t want to defend and end the game, because we knew we were in a strong position and we had to go out and do the best we can. I just wanted to go out and enjoy myself. From Day 1, from the Twenty20s till the end of the Tests, we wanted to be positive and we did that pretty well in England.
I’m naturally a very aggressive player. I haven’t changed my game at all since I started paying. I have just finetuned my batting technique a bit but approach has always been the same irrespective of the format. I went in with the same approach that day – I just wanted to score whenever they gave me loose balls, and it paid off.
But you had to shed your attacking instincts at Lord’s …
Yes, I had to do that. I firmly believe that unless it is extremely important, one doesn’t need to change his game. It was one of the situations where I just had to change my game. We had to bat out around 30-40 overs with the last three wickets. We had no chance of winning the game and all we could do was just stay in the game and play according to the situation. Surprisingly, we held on pretty well.
What was playing on your mind during the dying moments of the Headingley Test?
We were all very excited on the last day. It was a huge challenge for us from Day 1 of the England tour. Not many Asian teams manage to beat England in England. The victory was even more special because it was the first time that Sri Lanka had won a Test series in England that was one of the biggest reasons for us to celebrate.
The defeat to South Africa at home suggests there is still a long way to go. How are you addressing that?
I agree that there is still scope for learning and improvement. And we, as a team, need to improve in all three departments of the game especially when we are running into a very high-intensity World Cup next year. There is no place for complacency at all. All the teams are quite even, so whoever has even a small edge over the other will win. We need to fine tune our game a lot more and focus on improving all three departments, especially our fielding.
How has it been working with Marvan Atapattu?
Marvan is a very senior campaigner and captained the country on many occasions. He’s been there, he’s done it. He knows exactly what goes through the minds of the players. He’s been tremendous in the past couple of years with us and I’m pretty sure he’ll do a really good job in the future.
How do you evaluate Sri Lanka’s chances at the World Cup?
It is a good opportunity for us to do well at the World Cup stage once again. We just have to take one game at a time and not think too far ahead. Our preparations began from the Pakistan series where we started trying out our players to make sure we get the best out of the options that we have. And hopefully we’ll have our best 15 when we go to New Zealand.
It’s almost two years since you took over as the captain. What lessons have you learnt so far?
As a captain, you need to listen to people. It is a part of man management. In a team there are different types of players, their personalities differ; we can’t handle each of them in the same manner. Making collective decisions is also an important factor that keeps the team going in the right direction. As a captain, one has to be a team player and contribute wherever you can.
Mahela Jayawardene was my first captain when I walked into the international stage. I admire him a lot. He is a real tactician of the game, the way he handles people, the way he challenges himself both on and off the field. The way he responds to situations, he has been my greatest source of learning.