by Mohammad Isam (Cricinfo report)
During the first Bangladesh-Sri Lanka Test in Chattogram, there were four players who had debuted in the 2000s. Among those, Angelo Mathews was the most capped one, and he had to squeeze out every bit of that experience to get Sri Lanka out of early trouble, consolidate in the middle, and then dominate by the end of the day.
While Sri Lanka have many young players in their squad, a senior figure like Mathews finishing the day unbeaten on 114 is significant for the dressing room. Youngsters will soak up the lessons from his innings, which must have inspired those as well who are not-so-young but yet to hit their peak. Through his 213-ball stay, he added 92 in a third-wicket stand with Kusal Mendis and 75 in an unbroken fifth-wicket stand with Dinesh Chandimal, ensuring both Mendis and Chandimal could bat around him.
In his early days, Mathews was a big six-hitter, a nifty seamer and an acrobatic fielder. But years in the international grind and several injuries meant that these days he is more of a quiet presence. His expression of experience and responsibility reflected in the way he batted on the opening day of the Test. He mostly played straight and didn’t fiddle with his wrists much. He tried to drive every full ball within his reach, covering whatever spin the Bangladesh spinners imparted on the ball, by showing the full bat face.
Experienced players have their own way of showing their intention to opponents, and Mathews wasn’t any different. He struck Nayeem Hasan, who had just taken both Sri Lanka wickets in the first session, for a straight six to start the second session. He would hit four more boundaries down the ground, which forced Mominul Haque to send the mid-off and mid-on back. That itself deflates a spinner who would prefer the batter to miscue a drive to those fielders inside the circle.
Mathews hit drives through covers, mid-on and midwicket quite regularly, while the rest of his fours came off filthy deliveries down the leg-side. There was not one boundary with the cut shot, which was hardly surprising since he was only reacting to what was being bowled to him: full and mostly straight.
Mendis said that there was great value to Mathews’ innings, particularly in the situation they found themselves in at the fall of the second wicket. He also praised Mathews for his knock in this oppressive weather.
“[Angelo Mathews] made a hundred, but [because of the heat and humidity] it can count as 150 or 170,” Mendis said. “There was so much heat. It is a little bit more than Sri Lanka. He played very well. He is the most senior guy in the Sri Lanka team. He played a dominating innings. I think it would be good if he goes on to make 150 or 200 tomorrow. The wicket was good, so we [told each other] that we can’t panic. A batter struggles for the first ten balls, but after that, he can play well.”
There was praise from across the dressing room too. Mathews’ old team-mate Rangana Herath, who is now Bangladesh’s spin bowling coach, said the 34-year-old has a lot of drive to do well at the top level.
“I know Angelo very well,” Herath said. “We have played a lot of games together. He always has the hunger to play for his country. Whether he is 34 or 36, he is always looking for a challenge. To be honest, as a Sri Lankan it was a fantastic hundred in the heat. I am sure he will continue to do a lot of things for Sri Lanka.”
Herath said that the Bangladesh spinners did well for the first day of a Test in Chattogram, where the pitch was mostly unresponsive, on top of the heat.
“Especially on the first day of a Test match, I am happy with how the bowlers did. Shakib and TJ [Taijul Islam] bowled well. Nayeem also took two wickets. He hasn’t played much cricket in the last 18 months but he has been practising a lot. In that case, I saw that he needed a bit of confidence, but when he got that wicket off the first ball, his confidence [was restored]”
Bangladesh are hoping to shut Sri Lanka down within another 120 runs, but the visitors are targeting a 500-plus total on this pitch. If Mathews continues to play the way he did on Sunday, it will make things much easier for them. Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella, Ramesh Mendis and the tail have to give him company for as long as possible, but Mathews knows what he has to do. Experience matters. You can’t put a price tag on what Mathews brings to the table.