Thirteen may be considered an unlucky number in the biblical sense and in popular culture but Angelo Mathews may not see it that way: he was appointed as Sri Lanka’s thirteenth test cricket captain last week and wasn’t complaining.
Angelo Davis Mathews is only twenty five years old. That makes him the youngest Sri Lankan captain in Sri Lanka’s three decades long test cricket history. Even the great Arjuna Ranatunga was a year older than him when the captaincy of the country’s cricket team was bestowed on him.
It is a factor that highlights not only the enormity of the task before Mathews but also the reality that Sri Lanka cricket is looking desperately in a new direction. His predecessors are all a decade older than him suggesting that there was a lacuna of leadership material in the interim.
Angelo Mathews began his cricketing career at St. Josephs College, Colombo a school which also produced Sri Lanka’s best paceman Chaminda Vaas. Thisara Perera, another exciting prospect for Sri Lanka was a team mate of Mathews at school.
He excelled in school cricket and captained the Sri Lanka Under-19 cricket team at the cricket World Cup in Sri Lanka seven years ago. That was to be his stepping stone to break in to the national cricket team.
His international debut was against Zimbabwe two years later when Sri Lanka toured that country. Against a weak opposition, Mathews had a modest tour and at that stage his place in the team was by no means guaranteed, with many others vying for national honours.
Mathews however grabbed world attention during the World Twenty20 tournament in 2009 when he made a spectacular save near the boundary by catching the ball, throwing it back into play as he was going over the boundary line and then returning to retrieve it. He was hailed as a ‘thinking’ cricketer.
A string of consistent performances followed, especially in the one-day format of the game that showcased Mathews’ talents as a right hand batsman and a medium pace bowler. Mathews gradually sealed his place in the one-day team as its all-rounder.
Perhaps a reason for investing in Mathews with the captaincy is his temperament. Many a time, he has shown that he can be unruffled in the face of rising tensions on the cricket field and play his normal game, often guiding other players with a degree of maturity that belies his age.
A case in point was the one day international against Australia in Melbourne in November 2010. Australia had posted a decent 239 for 8 and chasing this target Sri Lanka’s frontline batsman had given up the ghost when Mathews was joined by Lasith Malinga with the score at 107 for 8. Mathews played the stellar role, scoring an unbeaten 77 in a partnership that took Sri Lanka to an improbable victory and set up a world record for the highest ever partnership for the ninth wicket. It was a defining moment in Mathews’ career and one that again earmarked his leadership potential.
By the end of 2011, when the hierarchy of the Sri Lanka cricket team was in disarray with Kumar Sangakkara’s resignation as captain and Tillekeratne Dilshan being appointed to the captaincy only to resign a few months later, Mathews was the automatic choice as vice-captain. Mahela Jayewardena accepted the captaincy again in 2012 and Mathews retained this position. He was being groomed for the captaincy and confirmation came when he was appointed skipper of the Twenty20 team, in the aftermath of the loss of the final in Colombo and Jayewardene’s resignation. The latest announcement of Mathews’ elevation to the captaincy of the test and one day international formats therefore comes as no surprise. However, Mathews has had to pay a price: the captaincy of the Twenty20 format has been handed to an even younger player, Dinesh Chandimal.
While Mathews may have the temperament to lead the country, he is yet to reach great heights as a player. He has played just over thirty test matches, has only one century against his name in test cricket and is yet to score a one-day international hundred, his highest score being an unbeaten eighty.
That is only to be expected though Mathews is only twenty five and there is time for maturity and improvement. The big question will be whether the onerous duties of captaincy will prevent him from reaching his true potential as a cricketer.
That is because, as Sri Lanka’s cricket captain, Mathews will not only have to bear the pressures that come with the job in the cricketing arena, but off it as well. His employer, Sri Lanka Cricket has a dubious record in this regard with that institution itself been involved in constant controversy. It must be noted that three of Mathews’ predecessors-Mahela Jayewardena, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillekeratne Dilshan-have all quit their jobs in disgust at some point. Sangakkara even went to the extent of chastising SLC at a public lecture in London.
Mathews will also have to be the great diplomat in the dressing room: all three former captains are still in the team and will presumably be offering their advice as will be another two former captains-national selectors Sanath Jayasuriya and Hashan Tillekeratne.
Thus far, Mathews has raised no eyebrows with his off field conduct. He has played in the Indian Premier League and endorsed a few commercial products as most cricketers do, but the media has not tagged him as a cricketing mercenary as they have done with certain players.
He has been associated though with a player agent with questionable credentials. It is alleged that the conduct of this agent-who also manages other higher profile players-led to SLC’s move not to recognise player agents. That may be the first balancing act Mathews is called to perform.
Angelo Mathews is lucky to lead his country at twenty five years of age. If he can get his act right, he has a good ten years of captaincy ahead of him. However, he must also know that the life of recent Sri Lankan cricket captains, are like the bouncers he faces on the field: nasty, brutish and short