29 January 2017

Getting Angelo Mathews out

A few months ago when Sri Lanka whitewashed Australia in a test series, praise was showered on one and all associated with the team, from selectors, to coaches and of course the men who got the job done in the middle. 

It was only the second time in 12 series that Sri Lanka had bested Australia.  The previous win had come in 1999 (1-0).  It was a ‘home win’ sure, but a win against the mighty Aussies and a sweep to boot.  Highly creditable by all counts.

Angelo Mathews, as the captain, got his share of the bouquet, even though most eyes were on the newbies, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya De Silva and Sandakan in particular.  Among the seniors Dinesh Chandimal did better with bat than Mathews did and Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera, picked primarily for bowling prowess almost matched their skipper’s performance with the bat.  No one wanted Mathews to step down.  

A few months later, Sri Lanka were swept 3-0 by South Africa.  It was an away series.  The young heroes who had helped Sri Lanka secure the Warne-Murali trophy in July/August didn’t come good.  Inexperience and unfamiliar conditions were the excuses trotted out.  Legitimate of course.  Even though few expected Sri Lanka to sweep Australia even at home, none would have predicted an outcome too different from what we saw over the past few weeks in South Africa.  And yet some people are calling for Angelo’s blood.  

Let’s interject a caveat here.  Sri Lanka is not India.  There’s no burning of houses or effigies following defeat.  Selectors will get some flak, captains are faulted and arguments raised for dropping this player or picking that one, but that’s it.  Whoever the selectors pick, the fans back the boys once they take the field and by and large live with the joys and sorrows they inspire thereafter.  

Sri Lanka were comprehensively defeated in the tests.  Losses by 206 runs, 282 runs and an innings and 118 runs are made for cringing, even if it happens in foreign conditions and even if your team is young, inexperienced and lacking stars.  Mathews, as the most senior player and the man in charge, was the natural target for critics.  Phrases such as uninspired captaincy, unimaginative bowling changes and defensive approach were tossed around.  They followed Mathews to the T-20 series, even though that’s a different ball game.  His dismal performance in the first T-20 renewed the calls for the sack but the shrill voices went silent when he fought injury and almost single-handedly earned Sri Lanka an improbable win in the second T-20.  A Matthew-less win in the decider seem to have got his detractors out of the woodworks once again.

No one, not even the greatest to play cricket, perform consistently forever.  They come, they rise, they stay around for a few years or a couple of decades in the rare cases, and then they fade.  Some retire when they sense that the curve has turned, some are dropped.  Where does Angelo Mathews stand in all this?

Let’s consider the facts.  Among those who have captained at least 10 tests, Mathews stands behind Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena, Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu in terms of win-loss ratio.  In the case of ODIs, among those who have captained at least 40 matches, Mathews is behind all of them, ahead of Arjuna Ranatunga, but still has a success rate over 50%.  

None of these ‘greats’ had to lead from the front the way Mathews was required to considering experience, age and talent.  Each of the other four inherited teams chock-full of experience and time-tested performers, people who delivered with bat or ball consistently.  They all had Murali, let us add.  That’s a big edge.  Then there was also Chaminda Vaas, let’s not forget that indefatigable soldier.  Mathews had the services of Sangakkara, Mahela and Tillakeratne Dilshan in the early of his captaincy, but they all left a massive vacuum.  Big shoes to fill.  The boys who replaced them still have tiny feet.  They may or may not grow, but if they do it will take time.

Take his own performance.  His batting average across formats have improved since he took over the captaincy while his returns with the ball haven’t changed significantly.  What the stats don’t always catch is the fact that he’s had to marshall the middle and lower order batsmen time and again so that his team can get a decent score following repeated top order debacles.  

When you have wickets ideal for your strike bowlers, any bowling change will look ‘inspired’.  If you have to bowl to batsmen who are either inexperienced at test level or have to bat on unfamiliar conditions, then too bowling changes can look ‘inspired’.  That was not the case in South Africa.  The deck was essentially stacked against Mathews.  And yet, in that dismal series, he heads the field in terms of runs and average.  

Angelo Mathews, perhaps aware of the call from some quarters for his sacking, has stated that if he is asked to step down, he would.  He has stated that he would like to contribute as a player for as long as he can.  Easy words of course.  But then again, he was not offering excuses.  He was not complaining of the kind of human resources put at his disposal.  He was not trotting out numbers that would make a case for being kept on.  He didn’t refer to the work he’s done to nurture young players out in the middle.  Perhaps he’s not that kind of leader in the dressing room or maybe he is — we have no way of knowing.  In any event, given the mess that Sri Lanka Cricket has been for so long, the comings and goings of selectors, the exit of top players and the fact that he has been surrounded by newcomers in almost every single match he had to lead the team, it seems unfair that the man has been required to even speak of stepping down. 

The selectors have Dinesh Chandimal as an option.  Chandimal is a better cricketer than he was when handed the T-20 captaincy a few years ago, only to have it taken away rather unceremoniously but for reasons that were defensible.  His time will come, no doubt, but there’s nothing to say that he would be a better captain at this point.  It would be, at best, a gamble.  

Is Mathews totally spent?  The numbers and the relevant context does not warrant a resounding ‘yes’ to that question.  As of now, the only justifiable exit from the captaincy is a personal decision from the man.  It cannot be about performance.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene