Mathews has won. Just three balls into his spell in his comeback match, Angelo Mathews has Dawid Malan nick behind. He has given Sri Lanka their first breakthrough. He has put the brakes on England when they were threatening to get going. But hang on. He is not done yet. Is this him zoning in on the ball from backward point? Is this him firing the ball to the keeper? Has he run out Joe Root? Yes, yes and yes.
But he is not done yet. England have mounted a mini resistance. Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes have stitched together the second-biggest partnership of the innings. Mathews comes back for another spell. Mathews picks up another wicket. Ali almost on cue pays his tribute to the veteran by guiding the ball straight to point. Mathews struck the first blow when England were starting to run away with the game. Mathews lends another blow as England try to regroup. He is all over them with the resoluteness of an avenger dying to settle a blood feud. Oh, England! What have you done to invoke a punishment like Mathews?
However, it isn’t just about his performance. Certainly, there is more energy on the field, a lot more than what the previous four games collectively generated. For Sri Lanka, Mathews’ presence is like a shot in the arm, a strong cup of coffee on a drowsy day, or a dash of serotonin for a vanquished lobster. All of a sudden you see Kusal Mendis diving like a goalkeeper to pluck a blinder. Sadeera Samarawickrama throws himself forward to catch the ball millimeters above the turf.
But it doesn’t end there. Mathews is at the bowlers’ ears, liberally sharing the wisdom he has accrued over a career spanning more than a decade. He is showing Kusal Mendis, on his second day at his new job as the captain, the ropes, helping him set the field and hatch plans to ensnare the English batsmen. Mathews is radiating his wisdom on the field, inspiring and enlightening his teammates—like the sun radiating its rays, making flowers bloom, birds sing, and earth come to life.
Mathews has lifted his team’s spirits. Mathews has galvanized his team. Mathews has inspired. Mathews has performed. Mathews has won.
I still remember Mathews’ debut series. After getting out for a duck in his debut match, he scored 31 of Sri Lanka’s 152 runs in the following ODI. The striking feature of this innings was that it was the only innings with a strike rate above 100 when every other batsman struck at less than 50. Given the paucity of fast-bowling all-rounders on the island, it was Mathews’ all-round skills that made the ripples, but, for me, what made Mathews indispensable was his ability to clear the field with relative ease in a batting lineup that relied more on finesse than it should.
Mathews seemed to be progressing steadily when he walked in during the last over of a T20I match against India in 2009 and smashed Yousuf Pathan for two consecutive sixes. A year later, he would launch a rearguard action to haul Sri Lanka from a precarious 8 for 107 to ace the chase of 244 with one wicket to spare in Melbourne. In 2012, he would see Sri Lanka home against Pakistan while chasing 248, scoring 15 runs off the last over after coming to bat when the score was 4 for 97. The following year, he would walk in with a strong platform set by the openers and take Sri Lanka to 348 against India in the West Indies with a 29-ball 44.
Things came to a head in 2014. Mathews eventually became the batsman he was threatening to be, finishing the year as the second and third-highest run-getter in ODIs and Tests respectively. His laurels that year included the 160 at Headingley that took Sri Lanka’s lead from 169 to 350 after they were 8 down, and the 139 not out in an ODI in India that included 10 sixes, just one less than Sanath Jayasuriya’s record of 11 sixes in an innings for Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, Mathews assumed captaincy and led Sri Lanka in the 2015 World Cup. The lead-up was anything but smooth with the team being whitewashed in India and losing an ODI series in New Zealand 2-4. Sri Lanka’s World Cup itself was a disaster as they bowed out after losing to South Africa in the quarterfinals. The reason isn’t difficult to discern. 2014 was the year the shorter formats started changing. McCullum sowed the seeds of BazBall with New Zealand while England replaced Alastair Cook with Eoin Morgan as the captain of the white-ball teams. The tour of India showed Sri Lanka’s approach in ODIs was on the cusp of obsolescence, but no one paid heed. I didn’t want to blame Mathews because it was still not his team. He was a sinecure in a team that was spiritually led by the duumvirate of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
However, given his unrivaled status in the team, I expected him to take stock of the change and build a side that would carry his very own attacking bent after the World Cup. If the change hadn’t still become obvious, Sri Lanka’s moment of reckoning came in 2016 when they toured England. The gulf between Sri Lanka’s white-ball approach and England’s was conspicuous as England chased down Sri Lanka’s 254 in 34.1 overs in one game, and 305 with 11 balls and 6 wickets remaining in another game. Chandimal and Mathews were the main culprits as they ended up as the second and third-highest run-getters in the series while striking at 79.46 and 84.61 respectively. Mathews’ scores at the end of the series were 73 off 109, 44 off 54, 56 off 67, 67 off 54, and 13 off 15. Consistent runs at a poor strike rate would become the hallmark of his batting after the 2015 World Cup.
Sri Lanka’s decline would continue, and they would lose an ODI series to Zimbabwe 2-3 in 2017, failing to defend scores of or over 300 twice. In one of those games, Mathews walked in at 3 with nearly 15 overs remaining and 209 runs on the board and managed to score only 42 off 40, resulting in a defeat.
By this time, I realized Mathews was not a power hitter and I mistook him for one since he was the only one who could clear the field in a team replete with accumulators. It was a low-base effect. I assumed his reluctance to improve his hitting could be due to him overvaluing his wicket, not being smart enough to realize the need for a change, or trying to sustain his injury-prone body. Contrary to what I had hoped, his career was nosediving after the 2015 World Cup.
Since 2015, Mathews has averaged 41.5 at the strike rate of 79.58 in ODIs. In T20Is, his strike rate is an abominable 116.67. In Tests, he averages 41.5, which becomes a scanty 38.03 at home, something beyond the pale even if you factor in the tougher batting conditions. Four batsmen average higher than him at home including Kusal Mendis who made his debut in 2015. However, he continued to be seen as the be-all and end-all of Sri Lankan batting, thanks to his consistent runs in the shorter formats, albeit at a very slow pace, and the strong public image that tided him over his decline in Tests.
The ignominy of losing to Zimbabwe forced Mathews to resign from captaincy only to be reinstated when Chandika Hathurusinghe became the head coach in a few months. Nevertheless, the new lifeline didn’t last long as he was not only sacked from captaincy but also from the team after Sri Lanka were knocked out of the Asia Cup in 2018 following the defeat to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Mathews scored 16 off 34 and 22 off 39 while running out Dasun Shanaka and Shehan Jayasuriya. His poor fitness and propensity to run his partners out were cited as the reasons, but I believe they were merely populist rhetoric to obviate the uphill task of explaining the adverse effect of his slow-coach approach.
Mathews took it personally and lashed out at the coach publicly and rubbed it in on him by celebrating his hundred in Wellington with pushups, only to be injured in the following Test and miss the tours of Australia and South Africa. Being dropped from the team is a tough pill to swallow but some introspection is not too much to ask. However, here was a man who felt entitled to play for Sri Lanka and saw his place in the side as his birthright. Until then, I had never doubted Mathews’ integrity, but his reaction elicited second thoughts.
Soon, oodles of articles were written against Hathurusinghe in Mathews’ defense and a campaign to remove him from his coaching role started taking shape. Journalists who gave no hoots about Mathews’ declining numbers started munching his runout statistics to prove the coach wrong. Optics were manipulated in Mathews’ favor and he had his revenge when Hathurusinghe was reduced to a puppet coach during the 2019 World Cup, which Mathews took part in, before being sacked. Mathews would end up as the second-highest run-getter for Sri Lanka in the World Cup, but, as usual, at a strike rate of 77.70.
The youth-first policy adopted in 2021 by the new selectors after Sri Lanka’s characteristic poor show in the white-ball leg of their West Indies tour meant that Mathews along with other seniors were shown the door. Charith Asalanka would fast establish himself at number 5, shutting the door permanently on Mathews. In the aftermath, Sri Lanka experienced a mini resurgence, winning and becoming the runner-up in Asia Cups in 2022 and 2023, and not losing an ODI bilateral series at home since the series against India in 2021.
However, Mathews’ lust for a place in the side was inexorable. Following the LPL in 2022, a new campaign was launched citing his 213 runs at 123.12 as good enough evidence of his importance to Sri Lanka, which gathered momentum after Sri Lanka’s whitewash in India in early 2023. Soon, Mathews found himself back in the side only to be dropped once again after a poor show against New Zealand and Afghanistan. The last throw of the dice came after the Asia Cup as he made a last-ditch effort to break into the World Cup squad. When the World Cup squad announcement was delayed, it was obvious that this time more powerful hands were involved. If Sri Lanka’s sports minister’s comments are anything to go by, it is safe to assume that Mathews had his blessings. Journalists and former cricketers threw their weight behind Mathews and even the 26-year-old Wanindu Hasaranga was dragged into the fray. Nevertheless, the selectors defied the campaign and announced a squad without Mathews, only to have him join the squad as a traveling reserve and eventually as a member following a spate of losses and injuries.
After losing his spot at 5 to Asalanka and at 4 to Sadeera Samarawickrama, Mathews was slotted in at 7, a position he had not occupied much since 2015. On what basis he was picked for a position he was not used to and despite having not played any domestic games recently, is not known. What we know though is that despite his presence, Sri Lanka would lose to Afghanistan and India with Mathews contributing 23 off 26 and 12 off 25.
Any doubt I had about Mathews’ integrity is gone now. The avaricious campaigns proved that Mathews’ risk-aversive, slow-coach approach may not have been due to anything else but his self-aggrandizing, navel-gazing egocentrism.
Mathews’ performance on the field gets replayed several times during the match. He gets interviewed at least twice and Kusal Mendis is specifically asked about the influence of the 36-year-old veteran during the post-match presentation. ESPNCricinfo writes about Sri Lanka’s victory over England and Mathews’ ‘magical’ return but fails to mention Lahiru Kumara who broke the back of England’s batting even once.
I wonder what makes Mathews such a popular media figure. Money or power does not provide a sufficient explanation as his reach extends beyond Sri Lanka. As someone pointed out at X, his good English could very well be one of the reasons, for the media loves someone whom they can talk to. Besides, Mathews’ poker face and calm demeanor fit the stereotype of a wise man perfectly. He doesn’t throw his wicket away taking risks and when he gets out eventually, he makes it seem like he was forced by circumstances. It is everything traditionalists yearn for.
Whether it is money, gratitude, public image, or sycophancy, it is obvious his backers weren’t acting in the best interests of the team. During an interview, Mathews said, “I’m honored to play in my fourth World Cup. I mean, it’s a dream come true. You know, as a youngster, you always dream about playing for the national team and then you play four World Cups. You know, when I get old, I can look back and say okay, you know, I have achieved quite a bit of things.” This along with the posts on X from journalists about this being Mathews’ fourth World Cup lays bare the actual motive.
There was nothing spectacular about the win against England, who have beaten only Bangladesh so far. If Mathews’ two wickets can be considered a good enough performance, then that only shows how low the bar is for him. The comical value in the absurdity of a cricket-deprived 36-year-old picking up two wickets of England, whom everyone loves to hate, met the naïve excitement of Sri Lankans to produce the spectacle it eventually became. And did I tell you that the runout was a straightforward chance and the only reason for the hype was Mathews was not expected to effect it?
To top it off, the energy on the field was not due to Mathews’ presence. After all, his captaincy was notorious for his team’s lassitude. I wonder what wisdom he imparted on the players as we saw none of it during his captaincy stint. It was yet another case of the media doing his PR work.
If the selectors, for all their flaws, got one thing right, then that was backing players despite failures. They adhered to a process no matter what. This is in complete contrast to Mathews’ stint during which as many as 68 players played across formats. However, Mathews has now disrupted this process, which will have consequences beyond this World Cup. Persisting with a process takes great discipline and Sri Lanka were building this habit until they relapsed to massage the bruised ego of one man. Mathews struck a blow when the retirement of Sri Lanka’s stalwarts allowed them to forge a modern identity. He lent a second blow just when they were starting to recover from the first blow. Sri Lanka have lost. But Mathews has won.