“Mathews still has at least a couple of years left in him, but Sri Lanka will have to look beyond that as well. The next series will be a good time to begin”
Over the last couple of years, we have seen Angelo Mathews being ruled out due to injuries very often. However, whenever he is fit, he is welcomed back into the Sri Lankan XI with open arms as he is arguably their best player. We need not look too far to see his valuable contributions than the Wellington Test against New Zealand, where he and Kusal Mendis batted out an entire day to rescue the Test for their side. He batted close to 8 hours in that innings and remained unbeaten on 120 to give Sri Lanka a chance to win the series in their next match at Christchurch. However, despite a good bowling performance from the Lankans in the first innings, things quickly unravelled. Their spineless batting display was once again on display, which has been the case for the better part of the last two years, barring some spirited performances now and then – like a series win over Pakistan in the UAE.
Ever since the departure of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Mathews was entrusted to lead his side into the next era. He was tipped to take Sri Lanka to great heights but needed some time as it is never going to be easy to find replacements for two greats, who amassed a combined 24,214 Test runs for Sri Lanka. But one has to start somewhere.
With Mathews frequent injuries, many temporary captains have come and gone. Dinesh Chandimal is now entrusted to lead Sri Lanka across formats. This has not just relieved Mathews of his captaincy duties, but he is now in the side solely as a batsman and is rarely seen bowling in Test cricket it is believed that it might aggravate his injury. Mathews has the potential to walk into any side solely as a batsman. He has more than 5,500 runs at an average of close to 45, which include nine hundreds and 33 fifties. His prowess with the bat cannot be questioned but whenever he bowls, he causes some threat, which Sri Lanka miss. He is not express pace, but his ability to swing the ball and getting it to nip around a bit are some of the traits of his bowling.
If a batsman is what they want at that No. 5 position, Sri Lanka always have the option of digging into their talents from domestic cricket. With gruelling tours of Australia and then South Africa at the horizon, it only makes sense that Sri Lanka find someone who can deliver in the middle-order consistently and give Mathews enough time to recover instead of pushing him right into the XI immediately after he is fit.
After getting the axe from the one-day squad in September, after a poor showing in the Asia Cup in UAE, Mathews did well in the Test series against England scoring three fifties. Mathews revealed that he was hurt after he was dropped and it is evident that all is not well between him and coach Chandika Hathurusingha, who is believed to be one of the key figures who were in favour of Mathews ouster. His push-ups and bicep flex after his century at Wellington was clearly intended towards Hathurusingha. However, in the very next Test, just when things were going well for Mathews, his hamstring injury has come back to haunt him once again.
The likes of Dhananjaya de Silva and Sadeera Samarawickrama have been with the national side for some time now and it is now perhaps time to give them a long run in the Sri Lankan Test side. Samarawickrama has not played a Test in over a year but was given a go in the ODI series against England recently. At 23, he could be Sri Lanka’s long-time prospect. Similarly, de Silva, who has already played 21 Tests for Sri Lanka and scored at an average close to 35 should ideally be in the XI in every match for the talent he possesses.
Asela Gunaratne was considered to be a bright prospect for Sri Lanka, when he made his debut in 2016, aged 30. His international career too never really took off due to injuries, but now at almost 33, he could be the perfect replacement for Mathews, at least temporarily. The all-rounder had replaced Mathews against Zimbabwe in 2016 in Tests and ODIs and having regained full fitness now, he could very well be one of the solutions.
Batting seems to be the main concern for Sri Lanka as they believe that they have a decent mix of fast bowlers and spinners in their ranks. If it is batsmen that they are looking at, they could always look towards their consistent performers at the First-Class level as back-ups and give them their chance when the situation demands.
Replacing Mathews is no doubt a tough task, but if Sri Lanka cricket has to move forward, in the longer run, it would be ideal for them to find a suitable candidate to replace him in the middle-order, given his injury issues of late. Mathews still has at least a couple of years left in him, but Sri Lanka will have to look beyond that as well. The next series will be a good time to begin.