It has been four months since Angelo Mathews stepped down from the role, but it’s hard not to look at him with the feeling in the back of your mind that you’re watching Sri Lanka’s captain do his thing. There’s Sri Lanka’s captain, pulling an underarm throw-down (flick-up?) from a crouched member of the support staff. Here he is now, in the nets, defending off the back foot, looking like a captain, looking burdened by everything that ails Sri Lankan cricket.
It’s all in your head, of course, the transposition of a careworn expression onto a helmeted face that’s at least 60 yards from you and facing the wrong way. But it comes from having watched him all these years: the shuffle across to off stump, the stoic face behind the sunglasses while setting fields, the guarded post-match interviews.
This feeling is also born of not having watched too much of Mathews since he gave up the captaincy. He has been out of action for the last few months, and has only just recovered from his umpteenth injury of the last couple of years.
This tour of India, then, comes at an important juncture in his career. He seems to have been around forever, but he’s only 30, a year and four days older than Ajinkya Rahane. The early 30s are widely reckoned to be the best time in a batsman’s life, and it’s the perfect time for Mathews to put behind him the turmoil of his last few months of captaincy, and focus anew on becoming the best batsman he can be and the towering batsman he hasn’t been for a while. He hasn’t made a Test hundred since August 2015, and in that time has scored 917 runs in 32 innings at an average of 28.65. His average, in that time, has slipped from 52.06 to 44.93.
The dip in Mathews’ run-making powers has coincided with his becoming the senior-most member of Sri Lanka’s batting group: he scored his last hundred in the first Test after Kumar Sangakkara’s retirement.
Which is all the more reason why the Tests against India are so important to Mathews. He’s one of only two survivors from Sri Lanka’s last proper visit (Rangana Herath is the other), and on that 2009 tour he was a 22-year-old with four Tests behind him. In those early years, he batted at No. 6, impressing by dint of his own class but also benefiting from the cushion of the runs scored by Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera batting above and alongside him.
There are some good young batsmen in Sri Lanka’s squad on this tour – and at least three outside it, in Kusal Mendis, Asela Gunaratne and Kusal Perera – but they haven’t quite grown up with the same cushion. But they aren’t too far from having a solid core of experienced batsmen to bat around. Dimuth Karunaratne has had a breakthrough year as a Test batsman, and together with Dinesh Chandimal built the batting foundations of Sri Lanka’s 2-0 series win in the UAE a few weeks ago. Add a fully fit, fully firing, post-captaincy and non-careworn Mathews to that mix, and Sri Lanka suddenly look like a pretty handy batting side. Make it happen, Angelo.