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By Gaurav Joshi
Two years ago in a Twenty20 International (T20I) match between Australia and Sri Lanka, played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the host nation required four runs off the last ball to level the series. Thisara Perera, the bowler, stood over his mark discussing his plans with his captain, Angelo Mathews. Both chatted for a few seconds before former captains, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara rushed to join the meeting.
The meeting lasted for over three minutes, as the game was at a standstill at the climax. It was clear Mathews’s decision-making was impeded by other seniors in the team. Glenn Maxwell, the batsmen on strike was scathing with the hold up and even approached the ‘mothers gathering’ urging them to get on with it. Channel Nine commentators went on to state “Not sure why so many of them are in a huddle, Mathews is the captain, he should be the only one making the decision.”
Sri Lanka eventually won the match, but from the outside, it was clear that Mathews was the leader only on paper, not on the field. Senior players were taking the decision when it mattered. Mathews perhaps was not totally accountable for his side.
A couple of months on, Mathews was nominated to lead the Test team. While his first Test series was hardly a challenge — a two-match Test series against Bangladesh at home, it was his leadership in the next series against Pakistan that once again raised doubts over his captaincy.
Sri Lanka was leading the series 1-0. In the third and final Test in Sharjah, Pakistan had to chase 302 runs to win from 60 overs on the fifth day. It was a stiff task, but it was made easier by Mathews’ captaincy.
Right from the outset, the mindset of Mathews was to contain. After a couple of boundaries, sweepers were employed from as early as the fifth over. Slowly, Pakistan seized control of the match. As they marched towards the total with relative ease, eight or nine men patrolled the boundary. When Pakistan reached the target, 220 runs had been scored in ones, twos and threes; an indication of Mathews’ dour leadership and pessimistic mentality.
But Mathews demanded another chance, it was only his fifth match as captain and in spite of his defensive captaincy, he had taken positive steps on transforming himself into a fine Test batsmen.
Six months down the line, Mathews led a team to England in what was seen as “Test match practice for the hosts” before the demanding Tests against India that followed.
Right from the outset, Mathews seemed more resolute with his decisions. In the first Test, he won the toss and elected to bowl. It may have been slightly defensive, but he provided a rational response. “If we fall behind on the first day in terms of batting, it will difficult to catch up.” In the back of his mind, Mathews was confident that his batting would prevail once the pitch had lost its initial venom, and he wanted his inexperienced bowlers to bowl when the pitch provided greater assistance. It was a signal that Mathews understood the weaknesses and the strengths of his men.
Mathews’ decision at the toss had to be admired, for he was confident his batsmen could bat for substantial period. Once the pitch had flattened out; his batsmen proved it, albeit by hanging on by a thread.
Sri Lanka under Mathews was playing to their strengths, and Mathews’ captaincy was flourishing throughout the Test. Even though his team trailed on the first innings by 123 runs, he persisted with extra men in the cordon, ignoring the idea of employing sweepers and boundary riders, almost customary for modern day captains. He was conjuring up plans to dismiss England rather than contain them, a mistake he had made against Pakistan only a few months ago. In the end, his team held on by a whisker, presenting Mathews another shot at England from even ground.
In the second Test at Leeds, after a few riveting days of cricket, Mathews had taken his nation from a precarious position at the End of Day Two to within arm’s length of victory by the fourth evening. Mathews was the catalyst with the bat, ball, and as the leader. He had galvanised his team through his brilliant individual performance and fine leadership. Heading into the final day, Sri Lanka were on brink of victory, but it took him 89.4 overs to land the knockout blow.
Along the way, Mathews, the captain took giant leaps. First, he was involved in a heated conversation with Joe Root; in that gloomy loss in Sharjah, the only aggression Mathews had shown was towards the umpires. This time, he hurled his words at the batsmen; it might have been through sheer frustration, but as a captain he never crossed the line. Mathews was standing up for his men, an inspirational leader.
His tactics throughout the final evening were inventive. He employed peculiar fields, putting men in catching positions constantly, asked his bowlers to bowl from different angles and at times rotated his bowlers like a revolving-door (there were 11 bowling changes in the last hour of play).
Rarely did he run from his position of mid-off to slips to seek the opinions of Jayawardena or Sangakkara, nor did the senior players weigh him down with their own thoughts. Mathews the captain, the leader, the king, was now an independent decision-maker.
Even as the match was slipping from his grasp, he was calm but still animated, and backed his instincts. Rangana Herath had troubled James Anderson in his previous over and it seemed like a wise choice to bowl the last over to the English No 11, but Mathews resisted natural temptation. He turned to Eranga, his quickest bowler, and asked him to launch one last barrage of short balls at Anderson.
When he opted to bowl Eranga, no other member of the team consulted him or surrounded him. He exchanged a few words, set the field, and let his bowler execute the plan. After a couple of balls, he realised he had made a small mistake — a silly point should have been in place — and he immediately got a fielder under the nose and at leg gully.
Mathews’s innovation would prove rich rewards, as Anderson spooned a catch to the leg-gully. Plans well executed, field placements spot on, self belief and natural instincts. Angelo Mathews had come a long way from man who wasn’t allowed to make a decision by himself in a T20 match to an astute self dependent tactician and leader.
(Gaurav Joshi is an Indian-born Australian who played with Michael Clarke in his junior days. He coaches and reports for a Sydney radio station. Over the years he has freelanced for Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and is a regular on ABC cricket show Cow Corner. He is the author of the book “Teen Thunder Down Under” – The inside story of India’s 2012 U19 World Cup Triumph).
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