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Cricket news - Angelo Mathews - SL's best chance of doing something worthwhile
You get anointed early as a future captain of Sri Lanka.
It doesn't happen after a certain number of games. Even a certain amount of success on the domestic scene brings no guarantees, though you could be a worthy stop-gap. Because the job is more than runs, wickets or service.
No. It happens when you're still at school. And Angelo Mathews was just 14 when it happened to him.
St Joseph's College, Colombo has produced a number of top-level Sri Lankan cricketers, and Mathews will be one of three alumni at the 2019 World Cup, along with Thisara Perera and recently-appointed skipper, Dimuth Karunaratne - the second from the school to lead the Sri Lankan national team. The first was, of course, Mathews.
Rewind 17 years. Coaches at St Joseph's saw leadership qualities in him. The talent was apparent and evolving, but there was something about this tall, slight kid from Colombo that suggested he would make a strong role model one day.
Maybe it was the shoulders, even then broad enough to one day bear the load of this small nation's weighty expectations. Perhaps his common touch. The private education system in Sri Lanka is not so different to that in the UK for fanning the flames of elitism that causes most grievances in a national team dressing room diverse with school, street and beach cricketers.
Mathews, though, was never the snooty type, and certainly not raised that way. He was introduced to cricket by his father but what he knew of playing the game came from his mother who would judge his shadow-batting and occasionally turn her arm over to bowl to him.
The 14-year-old was destined for much, and the first step of his journey would be captaining St Joseph's Under-15s.
Dipping back into this particular part of Mathews's history is important because, well, things were not meant to turn out as they have. Players have had worse careers, of course, and only a fool would turn their nose up at 356 international appearances, a Test batting average of 44 and a T20 WC winners medal. But Mathews arrives at this World Cup as a pariah of Sri Lankan cricket. There is a feeling of unfulfillment: a sense of fate going awry.
A kid destined to captain is a captain no more and may never be again. The seam-bowling all-rounder is now simply a batsman, his bowling stripped away by his own body. The golden boy has lost his lustre and been robbed of his shine.
The 2015 World Cup was good and bad. Mathews led Sri Lanka to the quarterfinals where they were knocked out by South Africa. It was the first time since 2003 they had not made it to the semis, but no one expected that crop to seriously contend for a final-four placing.
But that finish was less to do with Mathews's wit and more down to 541 runs in seven innings from Kumar Sangakkara. The King moved on soon, allowing room for the Prince to ascend.
The coronation had already happened in stages: Mathews to the T20 captaincy in 2012 before adding the ODI one a year later. In 2014, he oversaw 20 wins from 32 matches. The next four-year World Cup cycle was the perfect chance for Mathews to cultivate a side in his image.
It wasn't going to be easy because it never is in Sri Lankan Cricket, never mind the loss of greats to choose from. Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were gone, but their counsel was readily available. Mathews, though, wanted to do it his own way for the sake of sustainability. Sri Lanka had relied long enough on those two.
The kids coming through were good and with Mathews's cunning, shortcomings could be covered off enough to allow them to flourish.
But results were worse than expected and patience wore thin as Mathews's hamstring wore thinner. His fitness became a regular cause for concern to the extent that if he ever started a tour, he was odds-on not to finish it. As he lost trust in the ability of those around him, he went further into his shell as a captain. That's when the pieces of him starting being stripped away.
The Test gig was given to Dinesh Chandimal to free up Mathews's workload, who by now had emerged as Sri Lanka's best batsman. But in July 2017, following a series defeat to Zimbabwe which threatened their automatic qualification for the World Cup, Mathews began having open doubts about whether he was the right man to lead. A year later, those doubts were coursing through every selection meeting and hallway briefing.
In March 2018, the SLC asked him not to bowl for his own well-being before publicly outing him as a poor-runner between the wickets. "He has 64 run-outs, 49 times the opposite guy got run-out," announced head coach Chandika Hathurusingha in a press conference, before saying it was a matter best dealt with in private. At the time, it was actually 65. Sri Lanka fans had been turning on Mathews and these statements were very deliberately put out there to fuel the fire. In September, between a dismal showing in the Asia Cup and on the eve of a series with England, Mathews was sacked outright.
Enraged, he threatened to retire from all white-ball formats, accusing the governing body of spreading falsehoods about him behind the scenes. In a letter to the board, he lamented being made a scapegoat for the ills on the field.
Mathews has only played one ODI since: against Scotland as part of a warm-up series before Sri Lanka's World Cup gets underway on June 1 against New Zealand. Mathews scored just one run batting at No. 5, but that's really just small detail stuff.
2019 started with talk of him missing the World Cup and even now, as part of the squad, there are contingency plans in place, with certain players on standby in case the expected occurs and that hamstring twangs once more.
Fittingly, it was a school friend in Karunaratne who held firm and demanded Mathews's presence in the 15-man squad. Knowing he needed numbers to back his mate, Karunaratne came armed with nuggets such as Mathews's experience in English conditions: 21 ODIs across bilateral series and two Champions Trophy campaigns (2013 and 2017), along with a healthy average of 47. It worked.
So here Mathews is. A man promised much who had to rely on the backing of a former classmate, a bit of private school privilege, to make what, at 31 years of age and given his injury record, is likely to be his last 50-over World Cup.
Since 1996, these World Cups have meant more to Sri Lanka than any other competition. And just as it was then when the country was in dire need of relief, maybe it's not for nothing that a Catholic son born to a Jaffna Tamil father and Burgher mother represents Sri Lanka's best chance of doing something worthwhile after the atrocities across the country in the last month.
He does not want anything to do with captaincy anymore. But given what those schoolmasters once saw in that 14-year-old, Mathews does not need captaincy to be a leader.
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