At a time when genuine allrounders are rarer than ever before, Angelo Mathews shines bright. In Tests, One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 cricket, Mathews has established himself as Sri Lanka’s man for a crisis. Averaging more than 50 with the bat, and good enough to open the bowling with muscular seam-up when the conditions suit, Mathews would be a captain’s dream, if he were not the Test captain himself, having been handed the job at 25, younger than anyone else in Sri Lanka’s history. One of Wisden India’s Cricketers of the Year, Mathews took time out to have a freewheeling chat. Excerpts:
What is it like being an overseas player at the IPL?
When you’re an overseas player for a franchise, you as a player know that you have to perform well so that the team can benefit. You get to share the dressing-room with greats from so many different countries, you have to try to gel together as soon as possible from the pre-tournament camp till the end of the season. It’s a great learning curve, but it’s a bit like going overseas and playing for a county. You have an added responsibility to deliver, because you know your team is counting on you.
In a way, are you an ambassador for your country? If you do well, it opens doors for others from Sri Lanka who follow …
Obviously you only get an opportunity to play in the IPL based on what you have done for your country. If you do well for your country, then all eyes will be on you. Whatever opportunities I have got is because of what I have done for Sri Lanka. For the younger players as well, if you do well for your country, there will be other things that open up for you. The focus for any player will have to be delivering for his country at the international level. When you do that, the rest follows.
You’ve established yourself as a serious cricketer in all formats. What are your aims now?
I’ve had a good year and a half, and done pretty well in all formats. As a player you try to be consistent, as much as you can. You work really hard towards achieving that consistency and sustaining it, but this is not always possible in the shorter formats, especially Twenty20. The No. 1 thing for me is to be consistent in what I do with bat and ball. That is my aim and target at the moment.
What kind of role do you see for yourself as an allrounder?
I’d like to think of myself as a genuine allrounder. But, in the past I’ve had a few injuries and as a result backed off a little bit from my bowling. But I’m doing a lot of bowling now, in the recent past and now.
You have a leadership role in Sri Lanka cricket, but here you’re playing under someone else. How has that worked out?
I’m enjoying my stint with Delhi. We’ve got great guys in charge, whether it is JP Duminy as captain or Gary Kirsten as coach. The management is unbelievable. We’re thankful that an environment has been created where the players can go out there and enjoy the game and express themselves. When you lose a couple of games, it’s easy to look back at things and have a go at each other. But Delhi is different. We always look to tighten our group. We look for positives all the time. That’s the culture we’ve created. It doesn’t matter whether you are captain or not, when you step out onto the park, all eleven players need to think like a captain, think how you can contribute and make an impact on the game.
Sri Lanka cricket is in a bit of a transition phase. What are the challenges ahead of the team?
We are in a transition period in Sri Lanka. There are no words to explain the kind of service Mahela (Jayawardene) and Kumar (Sangakkara) have rendered to Sri Lankan cricket. We are extremely thankful to those two guys. We’re lucky enough to have Sanga for a few more Tests. We don’t know how long (Tillakaratne) Dilshan can carry on for. These guys have all done a great job and we’re extremely thankful. As a team, we need to be patient. It’s not easy to fill these shoes. All we can do is give opportunities to younger guys and try and be patient with them till they come good.
Are we about to see the next wave of young Sri Lanka cricketers come through?
Younger players have to come up. No one can play forever, irrespective of how good they are. We’ve got a good set of young players. We just need to be patient with them, have faith in them and give them the opportunities for them to deliver. It takes time. Very few people just walk into international cricket and perform straightaway. I took my time to settle in and perform to the level at which I wanted and I was given that time. It comes through experience, but you have to be patient with youngsters, it’s not rocket science.
Who are the players we should watch out for?
We’ve got Lahiru Thirimanne, Dinesh Chandimal, Ashan Priyanjan, Kithruwan Vithanage, Niroshan Dickwella, Dimuth Karunaratne … There are so many younger guys who have played a bit in the last couple of years but have not really got a long run. Our team was loaded with experienced players, so it was only off and on that we could draft the younger guys in so that they could get the international experience they need. The transition has been happening, but it’s just that we need to give these players time.
There’s been some opposition to Twenty20 cricket in general and the IPL specifically back home. It’s been suggested that this takes away from playing for the country …
When it comes to Sri Lankan cricketers, no one can point fingers at the players because they have always put country before any other cricket or league. No player has missed playing a match for Sri Lanka because he was playing elsewhere. This is an opportunity where you can learn a lot of good things. You play with and against the cream of international cricket in an intense environment. You can share your thoughts, pick up things and you take these back home when the tournament is finished. You can then share this with youngsters back home.
Is the IPL a bit misunderstood then? The money and glamour aside, is the cricket really that good?
The standard of cricket is really high. With four overseas players in each team, and a mix of the best young Indian players and those who have already played at the international level, the competition is intense. The quality is really high. I don’t think the tournament is misunderstood as such, but there will always be people who have different opinions. Each one is open to his view, but, at the end of the day, as players, this is an opportunity to learn new things. The game is going faster and faster, and you have to keep pace. I take this as an opportunity to learn, and to grow and get better, as a person and as a cricketer.
You’ve had a great 18 months or so, and this resulted in you being named one of Wisden India’s Cricketers of the Year. What was the highlight for you in this period?
My best performance was in England. To score 160 and help the team win in England was the highlight of my career. As a team we did really well, creating history. We’d never won a Test series in England before. It was a very special moment for all of us. For a subcontinent team to go to England in early summer and do well is not easy. We had to get used to the conditions quickly, and we adapted really well. We did well in the T20s and the One-Day Internationals as well, so overall it was a tour to remember for us.