Sri Lanka’s appointment of Angelo Mathews as their new T20 captain has confirmed that the time for the changing of the guard is upon us. A new generation of Sri Lankan cricketers has emerged and they will slowly take the reins in all formats of the game starting with the T20. The question is can this new generation of cricketers hope to match the quality of their predecessors? Well no matter what the pundits say or whatever anyones predictions are, the truth is only time will tell. Angelo Mathews has become the poster boy for this new generation and in him we see both the strengths and weaknesses of this new team.
The honest truth is Mathews was the only choice for captaincy given the resources the team have at their disposal, yet it might have very well been the case that in a stronger Sri Lankan team such as the 2007 one, he might not have even made the team sheet. This is not because of the lack of his talent, there is no doubting his first class record or his technique, what is in doubt is his consistency. He really could be the best player in the world as evidenced by his immense temperament and superhuman will to win when he rescued Sri Lanka from an impossible situation versus Australia in Melbourne back in 2010. However, at the same time when called upon to give even a modest showing to win the T20 World Cup versus the West Indies he faltered in a far less than superhuman manner. In these two performances we see the two sides of this immensely talented but highly fragile player.
Angelo Mathews is a new breed of Sri Lankan cricketer, one who did not grow up ever thinking that his side were minnows. In fact he would only have been nine years old when Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup and began their ascent to being one of the best teams in the game. It is this fact more than any other that both strengthens and weakens Mathews cricketing pedigree. Having grown up with a highly regarded team of world beaters as his idols he probably feels no inferiority complex when playing the game against the other big guns. This is shown by his extensive range of flamboyant shots and his willingness to take on bowlers with towering reputations. Much like Jayawardene and Sangakkara, he plays with a little bit of a swagger and a great deal of self-confidence.
However, he wasn’t there for, and did not play with any of Sri Lanka’s pioneers of the game. The 1996 team might not have had the supreme talents or flamboyance of the current team, but they did have a great deal more mental strength. Players like De Silva and Ranatunga had long been treated as inferiors by the rest of the cricketing world and so it took a lot from them to finally break this way of thinking and make Sri Lanka into a team of world beaters. The immediate beneficiaries of this were the next generation, players like Jayawardene learned his trade in a team filled with these personalities making him an all round cricketer one with both immense talent but a great deal of mental strength. Yet, the current crop, including Mathews did not have this opportunity and in some cases have been found wanting when the going has gotten tough. Sri Lankan culture makes it difficult to promote this steel needed to win the important games. Unlike Australia and South Africa who put their youth through a Spartan method of playing sports, Sri Lankans are a far more gentle people.
Mathews will have the safety net of the big three to fall back on for the next two years at least but he has to start planning for a team without them. So the time for turning his talent into application has arrived, the idea that he is a still in development and is too young for this kind of pressure can no longer be used. He has had three years at the highest level of the game and is now a recognised member of the squad.
He will not be solely responsible for the teams fortunes on the field because no matter how important the captain is, cricket is a team game. The team he inherits is full of holes, winning a test match may be very unlikely because he doesn’t posses the bowlers to bowl a team out twice and his younger batsman have still to prove themselves in the longer format of the game, Mathews himself only has one century from forty-one test innings. In the shorter formats of the game he has a little to smile about in the undeniable talents of Thisara Perera and Dinesh Chandimal and he would hope that the eventual retirement of the big three would give them the opportunity to shine.
The Sri Lankan team is now in a stage of change and rebuilding. As a new team and leader start to walk in the shoes of their illustrious predecessors it will take them some time to get the balance right. In this time it won’t be unusual for them to lose some games and maybe have a slight to moderate bad patch. What matters is how they come up from that, whether they fix their problems in a way that leads to a long-term period of success or if they plaster over them hoping for short-term fixes while sacrificing their long-term ambitions. One thing is for sure, whether we like it or not Mathews is our only choice in getting the team to where we want it to be.