With important runs and crucial wickets, Angelo Mathews played the lead role in steering Sri Lanka to the final of the World Twenty20 in 2009 in England. Since then, he has established himself as an allrounder to watch, and was recently appointed Sri Lanka’s Test and One-Day International captain. In this conversation with Wisden India, Mathews reflects on his career to date, and the challenges that lie ahead. Excerpts:
Your seniors have praised your leadership skills. What do you think makes you a good leader?
I think being myself as a leader makes me what I am. Having said that, you always have to get their advice because the seniors are a very important part of the team. (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, Mahela (Jayawardene) and Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara) have always been there and they give their fullest support towards helping out the youngsters. That makes it easier for me.
As Test and ODI captain, what are your realistic goals for the team?
It is a great honour and pleasure to captain such a wonderful country. We have got some really good guys who are very professional in the way they go about things. Team professionalism makes it quite easier for the skipper. Obviously, it is a huge task, being the captain.
Test cricket is the ultimate format. I really enjoy playing Test cricket but it’s very hard. I would love to see Sri Lanka as a top-three Test side but that will not happen in a few months’ time. It will take a while; we have to be patient with that and have to go smoothly. We have to introduce a few youngsters as well so that we have that right combination of seniors and juniors in the team.
My personal ambition is to get the team to the top three in Tests and ODIs, and we are already doing quite well in the T20 format, where we are ranked No. 1. So, hopefully we will be there, but as I said it is a huge task.
We have played some really good and consistent cricket in the recent past. If you look at our statistics, we have got to the finals (twice) and the semifinals (twice) in the last four World Cups. I can’t point out one area where we can really sharply improve, but as a team we always have scope to improve in all three departments.
The Champions Trophy will be your first big tournament as a captain…
Our first goal is to enter the semifinals. We are playing in a strong group. We have got New Zealand, Australia and England, and we have to be at the top of our game to make it to the semifinals. We will give our best shot and see how it goes.
Your appointment as captain has signalled a new era in Sri Lankan cricket. How do you see the future unfolding?
The future is looking bright but we need time. We still need Mahela, Sanga and Dilshan – the senior guys – with us till at least the next World Cup in 2015, because winning it is our main target. I think now we have to introduce some youngsters. We have got some really good youngsters who are coming through; as I said earlier, it is about getting the correct combination.
Guys like Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Perera and Akila Dananjaya are coming up and we have to make sure that they deliver for a longer period of time. That is where the role of the senior guys comes into play.
Dilshan, Mahela, Sanga, Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) and Sanath (Jayasuriya) – they all helped us when we came into the team and it was a great boost for us. When you know that the seniors are backing you, it gives you the confidence you need as a youngster. Whenever the juniors have got a chance, they have done well. I hope they continue the good work.
You have won matches batting with the tail in one-day cricket. How do you approach batting with the tail?
I try and give them a lot of confidence that they can bat as well. We have got the players who can take singles and give the specialist batsman the strike. It is important to give them the confidence and not tell them too much because they know how to go about things when the batters are on.
You have established yourself as a promising allrounder but your career has been constantly interrupted by injuries. How do you sum up your five years as an international cricketer?
The cricket calendar is jam-packed and we as players need to try and cope up with all the pressure that comes our way. Injuries do happen, it is part and parcel of the game. We have got to take it as it comes but you have to really work hard to stay fit.
The recent full tour of Australia, when I played my first Test in that country, was a huge learning. In fact, there is always something to learn when you play in countries like India, Australia and South Africa. You tend to grow a lot in those situations.
As a player, there is a lot of pressure on you because cricket is a game where you get criticised and praised in equal parts. You need to have that correct balance because you cannot be distracted once the criticism is on and similarly you can’t get carried away when you are praised. Balance of mind and working towards consistency should be your goal.
There have been quite a few wonderful moments in my career but a couple of them stand out. The one in Melbourne (November 2010), when myself and Lasith finished off (the pair put 132 runs for the ninth wicket to win an ODI against Australia). Recently (June 2012), we were 2-2 against Pakistan in Sri Lanka and it was the fifth game. I got an 80 not out and we won the game from there.
As far as I can see, from now on I would like to be consistent and focus on improving as a cricketer in all three formats of the game. As a player, I want to be the best allrounder.