Gritty Mathews begins road to redemption

Angelo Mathews said he does not worry about what other people say about him. But when your first act upon bringing up a half-century is to gesture to your dressing room that your bat will do the talking, then you probably do.

The celebration was first brought out in Galle during the first Test and, just as it was here today at the Pallekele International Stadium in the second, it was very purposefully aimed at Sri Lanka head coach Chandika Hathurusingha.

The pair have been at loggerheads since Mathews was stripped of the ODI captaincy and dropped from the squad for the series over England. Poor fitness was the official reason, along with Mathews’ dismal record running between the wickets. And even in this dramatic run-chase that will spill into day five, the former Sri Lanka captain had to make his point once more.

When Mathews ticked over to his 32nd Test half-century – and third of the series, no less – Sri Lanka still had 164 to get. It says a lot that his main driver seemed to be proving someone wrong.

Not that Sri Lanka could be picky about what motivates their players. Some of the current crop could do with picking the odd fight to rouse them into putting together a performance like Mathews’. He was calm yet purposeful at the crease, forging crucial partnerships with opening batsman Dimuth Karunaratne and then Niroshan Dickwella before eventually falling for 88. It was his highest score since a century against India in December of last year, 11 innings ago.

“My job is to score runs and not worry about other things,” stated Mathews when asked if spending the last month on the sidelines helped him drive him to perform here. “If I am honest myself and If I am doing the thing that’s what matters.”

The disappointment, though, about being jettisoned from the white ball side. That must have hurt? “Of course,” he replied. “I was disappointed, but I cannot control it.”

This was a timely reminder that while examples can be made of senior players, perspective is vital. Mathews’ main issue was that he got too comfortable in a side that desperately needed him to strive to be the best he could. He was expected to be the light in the darkness of the post Sanga and Mahela world.

But Mathews is, say, not someone who breaks curfew. Nor is he a player that is hard to manage. Then again, perhaps Hathurusingha has picked his target well. Not many other players would have performed as Mathews did after receiving the criticism and, at times, ridicule he has over the last couple of months.

His training, he says, has been no different than any other. “Nothing extraordinary,” Mathews said. “I have been training the same for the past 10 years. I prepared myself like I have always prepared.”

As for his running between the wickets, “you tell me” was his response, complete with wry smile, when asked to personally assess his scampering today. “People (who) are concerned – they need to answer than question.”

There is still noticeable room for improvement. While he’s not a passenger in the field, he’s certainly not the driver he once was. He is unlikely to regain his nimbleness across the outfield and that was particularly evident on day three when he put in a double-footed challenge on the boundary sponge at midwicket to save a boundary (he failed comically, in case you were wondering).

Yet again, his dismissal today – LBW around his front pad to Moeen Ali – came after a break in play – something which has been a regular criticism of him and other players in this line-up. Lapses in concentration have cost them dearly in this Test. Mathews, though, didn’t see it that way.

“You can get a good ball any given time. Moeen bowled lot of good balls. Unfortunately, I missed the line and it was umpires’ call. It was unfortunate and disappointing especially looking at the time I got out. That was crucial.” With his wicket, Sri Lanka were 221 for six – for seven not long after – trailing by 80. At stumps, that was down to 76.

“Had I put up another partnership with Dickwella it would have been a different story. But we are still in the game and we are in with a chance.”

He was equally bullish when asked to put a percentage on Sri Lanka’s chances tomorrow, with just three wickets remaining: “Hundred percent!

“We are still 75 runs away. The ball is soft and the wicket is close. You have about another 18 overs for the new ball. We have a batsman left in the crease and others can chip in as well. Cricket is a funny game.”

That he can see the latter is a good sign after the recent bitterness. The road to patching up his relationship with the management and becoming a key player in all formats will be long, arduous, and perhaps ultimately fruitless. But Mathews has shown he is willing to walk down it.

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