Mathews needs Sri Lanka more than Sri Lanka need Mathews

Courtesy: AFP

In Sri Lanka, no one is sent home permanently. It doesn’t take too long for a messiah to become a pariah, and then a messiah once again. All it takes is a clever manipulation of optics. In this perennially nostalgic part of the world, the past can be easily made to seem better than the present. This holds true in both politics and cricket. The latest instalment in this never-ending Sri Lankan disposition is the unsurprising clarion calls to bring back Angelo Mathews.

Sri Lanka’s performance in ODIs is concerning, we are told. The chagrin of having to play the qualifiers to find a spot in the 2023 World Cup is a blot in the nation’s history, they say. The major reason for these, they aver, is the misfiring middle order. To fix the middle order, Sri Lanka need Angelo Mathews, they conclude.

Are Sri Lanka floundering in ODIs after Mathews’ sacking? Is Sri Lanka’s middle order really struggling? And is Mathews the remedy for Sri Lanka’s ailments? This article is an attempt to answer these questions.

Is there a slump in Sri Lanka’s ODI performance since Mathews’ departure?

Mathews last played an ODI on the 10th of March in 2021 against the West Indies. Since then, Sri Lanka’s win-loss ratio has been a paltry 0.666. This is worse than Sri Lanka’s win-loss ratio of 0.735 between the end of the 2015 World Cup and Mathews’ last ODI.

So, are Sri Lanka struggling without Mathews? Well, not quite so. Mathews’ last ODI was the first ODI of the three-match series in the West Indies and the team was captained by Dimuth Karunaratne then. Following the series whitewash, sweeping changes were made to the limited-overs setup that saw the seniors including Angelo Mathews being axed. Kusal Perera captained Sri Lanka in the following two series before he was replaced by Dasun Shanaka. Consequently, as you can see, there was a lot of flux in the team until Shanaka was handed over the reins.

Besides, any team would take some time to find the right combination following a radical overhaul. This should partly explain Sri Lanka’s capitulation in Bangladesh followed by a shellacking in England. And let’s not forget the jolt the team was dealt with when the nighttime hijinks of Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella, and Danishka Gunathilaka saw them getting banned for close to six months.

Nevertheless, since the series against India in 2021, when Shanaka was appointed as the captain, Sri Lanka’s ODI side has been quietly evolving and they seem to be close to finding their right combination. So, it is only right if we consider their win-loss ratio since the series against India, which is a very healthy 1.125. This means that Sri Lanka have won more than they have lost, which is a far cry from Sri Lanka’s record with Mathews in the team. On that account, the concerns over Sri Lanka’s performance in ODIs are a carefully manufactured narrative that holds no truth.

Is Sri Lanka’s middle order struggling post-Mathews?

However, we must note that a team doing better without a player is not a valid enough reason to keep that player out. Mathews was not the only player to be dropped and perhaps the team has managed to address several other issues since, and Mathews’ comeback could very well reinforce the team.

So, how can Mathews reinforce the team? To answer these questions, we only need to look at the role Mathews was performing in the team before facing the axe and the narratives peddled by the pro-Mathews campaign. Mathews used to bat in Sri Lanka’s middle order, and we are made to believe that Sri Lanka’s middle order is feeble without him. So, has Mathews left a huge hole in Sri Lanka’s middle order?

Since the 2015 World Cup, whenever Mathews played, Sri Lanka’s number 4 to 7 averaged 30.45 with the bat while striking at 82.63. In contrast, since the series against India, Sri Lanka’s number 4 to 7 have averaged 30.95 while striking at 89.30. The average has remained fairly constant, while the strike rate has significantly increased. Thus, the struggling middle order is another myth manufactured to make a case for Mathews’ comeback.

But let’s not just stop at debunking this frail-middle-order myth. Perhaps, there is a better collective effort from the middle order since the Indian series and Mathews’ presence could make it even better. To test this thesis, we can look at the performance of Mathews’ direct replacement.  Mathews batted at number 5 in 45 of the 62 innings he played since the 2015 World Cup. So, has Sri Lanka’s number five, Mathews’ replacement, performed worse than Mathews since the series against India?

Mathews vs. Asalanka

Mathews averaged 49.14 with the bat at number 5 while striking at 81.13. However, since the Indian series, Sri Lanka’s number 5s have averaged 53.06 with the bat while striking at 93.42. In all but one innings, it was Charith Asalanka who occupied this position and he has an impressive average of 53.50 at an appreciable strike rate of 92.24. In contrast to our thesis, batsmen at number 5 have averaged a lot higher while striking remarkably faster.

Was Mathews unfairly sacked?

Another germane question worth asking at this juncture is if Mathews’ sacking unfair. Even though the selectors’ ploy of radically overhauling the team to address poor performance by replacing the senior pros with youngsters is merely an act of taking potluck, I must say that they made the right decision albeit for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to dwell on why the other seniors deserved to be dropped as that is beyond the scope of this article. I will, however, delve into why Mathews’ axing was long overdue.

Here, I must remind you that Mathews’ career can be split into two contrasting halves. Often the memories of the excellent first half of his career tided him over the poor second half. Mathews had averaged 40.24 with the bat until the 2015 World Cup at a healthy strike rate of 85.03. However, after the 2015 World Cup, his strike rate plummeted to 80.31 even though his average reached an impressive 44.6. This is peculiar since this is against the grain as the average strike rate of batsmen has only gone up since the 2015 World Cup.

What Mathews’ post-World-Cup numbers show is that he had forgone risks to bat longer. It can be argued that this may have been warranted by the failure of the top order. However, Sri Lanka’s top 4 had averaged 34.63 while striking at 85.80 since the 2015 World Cup until Mathews’ last ODI, while their average and strike rate since the Indian series have been 32.01 and 82.60 respectively. As we have already seen, Sri Lanka’s number 5 has done better than Mathews since the Indian series and the fact that this has been despite the top-order performing worse tells you Mathews’ antithetic approach had nothing to do with top-order failures.

To see the glass half empty, Mathews may have statpadded to improve his own record. To see the glass half full, the burden of captaincy may have forced him to place a higher price on his wicket. Either way, his rate of scoring was abysmal to say the least. His overall strike rate of 80.31 is less than the global average of 83.27 since the 2015 World Cup. Even though his strike rate of 81.13 at number 5 is marginally better, batsmen have been striking at 84.5 at this position on average since the 2015 World Cup. In fact, of all batsmen belonging to the top teams who have played at least 20 innings at number 5 since the 2015 World Cup, only Sean Williams, Asghar Afghan, and Jason Mohammed have scored slower than him. And don’t forget that Mathews’ strike rate at number 5 used to be an outstanding 92.51 until the 2015 World Cup.

Mathews’ febrile scoring had a debilitating impact on Sri Lanka’s batting as he often stalled Sri Lanka’s momentum with the bat and failed to accelerate once set. His batting was especially a concern against spin as, after the 2015 World Cup, he struck at a derisory 76.42 against spin batting at number 5 between the 25th and 40th overs, a period during which you would usually expect a number 5 to bat. And his overall strike rate during this phase was no better either as he managed to score only at 81.4.

His low strike rate was both a product of his inability to rotate strike and find boundaries regularly. His non-boundary strike rate batting in positions between number 4 and 7 is 51, which is worse than the global average of 52, considering only the record of batsmen who have played at least 20 innings in these positions since the 2015 World Cup. He had hit a boundary every 12.76 balls while the global average is 12.25. This shows Mathews as a middle-order batsman was slightly below par. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to say that he was fittingly dropped.

Can he play a different role in the current team?

We have seen why the number 5 role is out of the question for Mathews, but let’s see if he can play another role in the team considering his skill set. His high average and low strike rate make him ineligible for a lower-middle-order role. His strike rate of 120.2 at the death is lower than the global average of 121.75. Besides, Dasun Shanaka is striking the ball better than Mathews ever has and there is no way Mathews can displace him.

At number 4, the average strike rate has been 81 since the 2015 World Cup. In this period, Mathews played 8 innings at number four and could strike only at 72. Even his overall strike rate of 80.31 is lower than the global average at number 4. The average strike rate at number 3 is 82.1 and that is also higher than what Mathews can offer. Moreover, other than a solitary innings, Mathews did not bat at this position after the 2015 World Cup. His inexperience at these positions aside, his record alone makes him a poor candidate for these positions. On top of it, the top order is already a crowded segment in the Sri Lankan batting order as there are so many promising youngsters already awaiting their opportunities.

However, in ODIs, sometimes, early in an innings, you may need a batsman to see through tough batting conditions, which often entail excessive swing or seam movement. One way of assessing a batsman’s ability to bat through difficult conditions is to look at his Test record. Nonetheless, Mathews last played a Test in the West Indies, England, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa in 2018 and his Test average in the last 3 years, if you ignore his 200 on a docile pitch in Zimbabwe and the excellent series he had on good batting tracks at Chattogram, is a trifling 31.40. Ideally, this should get him dropped from the Test side as well but that is a topic for another day.

Do Sri Lanka need Mathews?

Angelo Mathews was one of the major reasons for Sri Lanka’s decline in ODIs following the 2015 World Cup as he failed to adapt to the changing times. The new powerplay rules introduced following the 2015 World Cup allowed only four fielders outside the ring during the middle overs, enticing batsmen to take more risks and consequently, score runs faster. However, the stymieing approach of Mathews held Sri Lanka back to an era bygone.

To top everything off, Mathews is 35 and his reflexes must obviously be slowing down. Add to this his injury woes, you can see that Sri Lanka are better off without Mathews. He has absolutely nothing to offer to the team and his presence can only do more harm than good. Further, replacing a youngster with someone who cannot contribute to Sri Lanka beyond this World Cup is myopic as it is neither going to help Sri Lanka win the World Cup nor help the team build for the future.    

Thus, the demands to bring back Mathews don’t seem organic, and they seem to be clearly manufactured. Now, I don’t want to speculate on if it is Mathews (or his player agent) who has orchestrated this campaign or if it is just his well-wishers in the media fraternity self-organizing themselves for a one last effort to help him end his career on a high. But the artificial nature of this campaign can be clearly discerned from the fact that there were no similar demands following the LPL in 2021, despite Mathews having a better LPL in 2021 than in 2022.

In 2021, Mathews averaged 47.8 with the bat and struck at 128.2. However, in 2022, his average and strike rate dropped to 35.5 and 123.1 respectively. If he was not good enough in 2021, he is not good enough now as well. Besides, when much younger batsmen like Sadeera Samarawickrama and Nuwanidu Fernando had equally good if not better LPL, demanding a spot for Mathews based on his LPL performance gives the campaign every appearance of one of a political nature.

We should also not forget that when Mathews was dropped in 2018, the same media fraternity rallied around him and ganged up on Chandika Hathurusingha, which eventually saw him being fired.  

With no T20 franchise seeking his service and not many Tests being played, Mathews needs to find a sport at least in the Sri Lankan ODI side to stay relevant. He would ideally want his swansong to be in a World Cup to add some gravitas to his farewell. Therefore, Mathews needs Sri Lanka more than Sri Lanka need Mathews.

To conclude, Sri Lanka’s chances of winning the World Cup this year are very slim and it will seem silly to unsettle the team that is slowly evolving by bringing in Mathews in the blind hope of magically turning the tides in the World Cup. Sri Lanka disrupted its nascent core by fielding a completely new squad with a new captain in the 2019 World Cup, and we know the outcome very well. Insanity may be doing the same thing repeatedly expecting different results, but insanity is definitely something that is burnt into the Sri Lankan cricket DNA.