By Champika Fernando in Johannesburg
In 2014, a few months after he guided Sri Lanka to their maiden Test win against England, Angelo Mathews was named captain of the ICC’s Test Team of the Year. He seemed well set to rise to the upper echelons of the sport’s hierarchy.
Like his predecessors Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Mathews was blossoming into an influential leader with Sri Lanka heading towards a generational change after the retirement of several high profile players.
He soon became the man Sri Lanka pinned their future on. He showed glimpses of great leadership and as a cricketer by leading from the front. And he ascended to new heights during his four-year reign, particularly by leading Sri Lanka to their first-ever series whitewash against Australia last year.
However, Mathews is now under fire from many quarter – including his employer – as Sri Lanka conceded one of their biggest defeats in recent years with a 0-3 defeat in the Test series against South Africa.
In an interview, Mathews, the youngest Sri Lankan Skipper after having taken over at 25, said he is ready to throw in the towel as captain if asked to do so.
Following are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: There has been a lot of criticism against the team, particularly your captaincy, following the Test defeat in South Africa. How do you deal with these criticisms personally?
A: This is my fifth year into the captaincy. I have realised that, when you do well, there will be a lot of people praising you. When you start losing, there will be criticism. This is part and parcel of the game. I understand that people back home are quite disappointed with the outcome of the series. They love the game. They follow us wherever we go. So, I understand their anger. But they need to see we are not here to lose. We try our best to win and we are as much disappointed as anyone. As I have said, I admit that we did not play our best cricket. But we came quite close on Friday (the first T20). A loss is a loss no matter how close the encounter is. I thought we did pretty well when compared with the Test series but, again, it wasn’t enough to win the match.
Q: Many have blamed lack of leadership for the defeats. Do you think it has anything to do with your leadership qualities?
A: I am not sure. When you win, there are lots of people to take the credit. But when we lose, it’s the captain and the selectors who get the blame. As captain, I take the responsibility for the performances of the team in South Africa. I know I am answerable but, as captain, I have done the best possible. I worked closely with the Coach (Graham Ford). I always discussed with the selectors when it came to the team. It has been a collective effort. But if someone wants to put the blame on me, so be it.
Q: You arrived in South Africa with five wins in a row, including the first-ever series whitewash against Australia back at home under your leadership. I am sure the levels of confidence of the boys were high but were beaten quite badly. Where did the team go wrong?
A: We need to understand the conditions we played in. Yes, we played very good cricket. We beat Australia at home and, again, Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe. I am not taking anything away from the boys. They did extremely well. But we need to accept that the conditions and the opposition (in those instances) is so different to South Africa. We knew it was going to be tough, tough for everyone. Yes, we get lots of stick back at home, but everyone should understand we are here to play cricket and win games. Like I said, we tried everything possible. In Test matches, we couldn’t really absorb how the wicket played. It had lots of grass. I don’t want to throw up any excuses. But that’s the truth. We just played poorly and badly which is why we lost the series.
Q. Unlike in the past, there are no star players in the side. How much of an impact do you think this has on the teams’ recent performances?
A: Yes, to a certain extent. When I started off, especially in England where we made that historic win, Mahela and Kumar were in the side. Even during the last Australian series, I had Rangana Herath. But now I am carrying on with a lot of young players. Players like Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva have not played much Test cricket, forget about playing outside Sri Lanka. So, we need to give them opportunities. Let everyone blame me, it’s fine. I can take it but let’s not blame the other players. They need support and encouragement and not to be put down.
Q: You became Sri Lanka’s youngest captain at 25 when the National Selectors decided to hand you the reigns in 2013. Don’t you think that the responsibility of captaincy came too early for you?
A: I was lucky to have Mahela (Jayawardene) Kumar (Sangakkara), T. M. Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera in the team. They helped and supported me. Now, I have Herath, and Dinesh Chandimal as Vice-Captain. I wouldn’t say it was too early. If you look at Graham Smith, he took the captaincy when he was just 22. It’s just a matter of whether or not you can do it. Yes, it’s not an easy job. You feel the heat more as captain. You need to be responsible and strong enough to take the blame and pressures thrown at you.
Q: There were champion cricketers coming into the side. It’s not the case now. Where do you think is the problem?
A: The domestic structure. Fortunately, the Cricket Board is now working together with the Cricket Committee to put a structure in place. We need to give them some time. I hope we can see a big improvement in couple of years. These are hard times. Even the legends, when they played overseas, were in trouble.
Q: We have a history of performing badly away from home. Why?
A: Most teams struggle away from home. If you take Australia, they struggled against us in Sri Lanka. I think we need to think out of the box, which the Cricket Board and the committee are doing at the moment. If you have a good structure in place and prepare good wickets, you will have better results. We did everything we could. We increased grass levels and played in those wickets at the Khettarama prior to this tour but we cannot get similar conditions to South Africa in Sri Lanka. I am sure we can turn things around. It’s just a lot of hard work that we have to put in from the players’ side as well.
Q: You have been named captain till the 2019 World Cup. In case Sri Lanka continues to falter in the series, do you think your position is under threat?
A: I’m not thinking too far ahead. I just want to take one game at a time. I’m not here to be captain forever and I will never be captain forever. This is just a passing cloud. I am not afraid to lose it and I don’t need it forever. I’m not afraid to step down or lose it or to keep it. I can play under any captain no matter who he is. As long as I perform, I have lot more to give to the team and the country. I’ll do my very best regardless of whether or not I’m captain.
Q: If the selectors asked you to resign because of the South African Test series loss, would you think it’s a justifiable request?
A: It’s not in my control. We are here to win, we never think to lose. If the selectors or Sri Lanka Cricket think they need a change and believe someone else is ready to do the captaincy, it’s not at all a problem for me. As long as I enjoy the game, I will keep playing. I just want to try and perform well as a team and I will always help whoever is captain in the future as well.
Q: Your tactics – mainly your change of bowlers and field setting – are labelled as poor by some critics. What is your response to it?
A: You can look at in two ways. When I bowl, it is a problem. When I don’t bowl, it is also a problem. I don’t really care about what others say. I’ll do what my guts say. I am the captain, I need to take decisions. Whatever I feel best, I will do after talking with senior players. I have always opened bowling from 2009, especially in these conditions when wickets have a lot of grass. Even Champaka (Ramanayake) and (Graham) Ford said me to bowl early since I swing and seam a lot more.
Guys like Lahiru Kumara and Nuwan Pradeep are better off with the semi new ball as they have better control. When you lose, everyone start to criticise the captaincy and the tactics. Everyone praised my captaincy when I led Sri Lanka to a 3-0 whitewash against Australia and also that historic moment in England where I gave the last over to Shaminda Eranga. You can see the difference. When you win, your tactics are good. When you lose, your tactics are bad and the captain is to be blamed for everything.
Q: There were lots of talks that you would resign after the series. Have you given a thought to that?
A: I haven’t thought about it. I will not run away from pressures. Anyone can say anything. If I feel this is the time or if the selectors say, I’m open to it. Whatever others say, I’m not bothered.
Q: In your opinion, what are the major issues facing Sri Lankan cricket at the moment?
A: One series defeat like this does a lot of damage but we have done really well in the last few tours. This is a sport. There will be ups and downs all the time. We can learn from those mistakes and do better next time.
Q: Lahiru Thirimanne and Chanidmal were expected to fill the shoes of Sangakkara and Jayawardene but both have failed to grab the opportunities provided. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I don’t want to compare Sanga and Mahela with anyone. Chandimal really performed well against Australia. Thirimanne was bit disappointed. He didn’t perform well to retain his place which can happen to any player. The challenge is how to come out of it and how soon you can come out of it.
Q: How has T20 cricket impacted the two traditional versions – Tests and ODIs?
A: Definitely in a good way. Cricketers have taken Test cricket to another level. We see lots of players getting three hundred on the first day. It is quite a fast game now. T20, all in all, takes pressure off the player. Yes, it is a pressure game and you need to be able to make decisions quickly. (At the same time) it has evolved players across the border. Now you see one-day cricket where even 380 plus score is not enough in certain conditions. So, it has helped the players to develop.