Mathews bares his soul

Angelo Mathews–the 32-year-old former captain, a player of indisputable quality speaks to the Sunday Times of his rollercoaster journey since breaking into the national side in 2008.

Excerpts of the interview

Q When you look back on your decade of international cricket, are you satisfied with your achievements?

To be honest, I’m not. I have under-achieved. I had a great run from 2013 to 2016. I played the most number of matches in the world during that period. It really took its toll, given the workload. I struggled with injuries and was in and out of the team from 2016 to 2018. This impacted my career. It was not easy to get back in there, when the momentum is broken, but I did my best on and off the field to achieve what I have achieved so far. Had I played consistently, without injuries, it would’ve been a different story. I’m doing the best I can to manage myself. We’ll see how it goes in the next few years.

Q Could you have managed your workload better to minimize injury risk?

If you look back, you will obviously feel ‘I could have done this’ or ‘I could have done that’. But it’s too late now. I was captain at the time and you want to play all the games. As captain, I wanted to contribute to winning and didn’t want to rest or miss games. It didn’t strike me to rest from any games during that period.
Q The retirement of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and TM Dilshan was always going to leave a void. As captain, what was your plan for the team in the post-Mahela, Sangakkara and Dilshan era?

We had a plan to fill those three shoes. We all knew it’ll take a bit of time, because, as I always say, our domestic structure needs improvement. We don’t have a T20 League of our own. If you look at all the Leagues around the world, they produce top class cricketers and it provides opportunities for them to rub shoulders with international players. I have benefited so much by playing in these Leagues with the world’s top cricketers. Without our own League, what we did was to inject players from the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team and Development Squads. Obviously, their standards aren’t on par with the national team. It will take a bit of time. Yes, we’ve seen the likes of Kusal Mendis and Dananjaya de Silva coming through, after those greats retired. But it’s a process and our domestic cricket structure is, unfortunately, not good enough to produce a lot of players.

Q Why is the domestic structure weak?
If I am not mistaken, around 120 players are currently playing domestic cricket in England and in Australia. That’s the cream of our cricketers and, when you play a domestic tournament without them, it gets weakened. So, we need to look after our domestic cricketers, as well. We certainly have the talent. Without it, we couldn’t have beaten Australia 3-0 at home. But to be consistent, the next set of players must be groomed. They need to rub shoulders with international players, for exposure to playing in pressure situations. You learn so much by sharing a dressing room with those guys.

Q When you got the captaincy in 2013, what was your plan for the team?
When I got the captaincy, I had the likes of Mahela, Kumar, Dilshan and many other senior players. It was kind of easy for me to seek their advice and lead in my own way. I did not try to copy the style of any other captain. I always thought I should do what I can, the way I want and like, and take responsibility for it. I thought I did that quite well and I was helped by all the seniors then. But once they retired, we needed to build the team up over a period of time. It was challenging and exciting. When you captain a good side and get good results, you obviously feel good. But to play with a young team and contribute to their growth excites you more. Certainly, we had a plan. We had some good wins. That against England in England was historic. The 3-0 victory over Australia at home and also being part of the T20 World Cup winning team was exciting.

Q As skipper, were you focused more on short-term goals, rather than the team’s long-term development?
We had short-term and long-term goals. Every single game, every single series we played were short-term goals for us. To improve rankings and planning for the World Cup were long-term targets. Along the way, you obviously win some and lose some. But they will all help us develop as a team and achieve our long term targets.

Q Given the instability and inconsistency in selections, how difficult was it to execute a long term plan?
It was a factor. Continuity matters, even with players, selectors and coaches. You can get distracted, but we, as, players, can control only what we can control, and that is to go out into the middle and perform at our best. I always thought, whatever happens outside, we must concentrate on playing good cricket.

Q As captain, you do play an import ant role in selection. Were you consistent with your inputs during the selection process?
The selectors will have the final say, but the captain has his inputs considered during selection. He may or may not get what he desires, in selecting the final 15, because the selectors have been given a job to choose the 15 and to choose players. They go to watch the games. So you have to trust the selectors as well, when they select a team.

Q Do you think the captain should have a bit more control over selection, as he is finally
answerable to what happens in the middle?

While the captain has a say in the selection process, I don’t think he should play the role of a selector, because the selectors are given a job. Everyone is responsible, as every decision is made collectively at these selection meetings. The selection process includes the coach, the selectors and the captain.

Q The year 2017 was tough for you, for many reasons. While injuries came to haunt your career, there were allegations of match-fixing by some former cricketers. While these charges were not directly aimed at you, there were enough hints to believe they were targeting you. How did it affect your performance?

Don’t know what the intention was, but certainly, I urge anyone, if they have evidence with regards to any player, to report to the ICC Anti-corruption Unit, rather than sling mud and try to create a false perception among people. It is paramount to keep the game clean and protect player image. On the other hand, I know there are some people who will plan attacks on social media at the correct time, by spending money to try and get a player off captaincy, or from the team. At the end of the day, if you are true to what you do, if you are honest, then you have nothing to worry about. Being captain is not an easy task, there will always be some who want you out of the system, team and captaincy. They will go down to whatever level to achieve their motives. But time will solve everything, and it has. I have seen what low people can get down to. I feel sorry for them for going down to that level, just for survival, or for positions. My main focus will always be the game, wherever I play and whenever I play. I give my 100%, that’s all that matters. No distraction will pull me down.

Q But when these allegations were aired publicly, by a former player, questioning the integrity of the team and you, as captain, how did you feel?

I was shocked and, immediately, we addressed a letter to SLC, to have a thorough investigation into it. Personal attacks of course I’m accustomed to, so it was not something new for me, so I kept laughing. But most importantly, when you have played the game internationally, for over 12 years, giving your best each time you go out there and play in the true spirit, you don’t have to worry about these false allegations. And you don’t need to waste time on trying to even reply to them, because you know you have played in the right spirit, so it doesn’t matter what others think. It was just a passing cloud and a bit of fun for me.

Q Amidst these allegations and the team’s poor performances, especially against Zimbabwe at home, you quit the captaincy. What made you do that?
I must be very precise. I did not give up the captaincy because of all these allegations. Halfway through the Zimbabwe series, I thought we needed a new face with fresh ideas, going forward. You know, you cannot hang on to these forever and I’ve had enough in the job. So, it was the right time to make that call. Obviously, I was going to play in the team. I could have gone on and quit later, but I am not doing justice to the team then. The new leader should have enough time to prepare the team for the World Cup (WC). That was my thinking.

Q But, you were named captain up to the WC. Besides, at 30, there was lot of cricket left in you. What actually compelled you to make that decision?
Obviously, performance matters. As captain, you are responsible for what is happening on the field. It was one of the lowest points, when we lost to Zimbabwe in Sri Lanka. That’s when I said to myself, I need to give the opportunity to somebody else. Yes. I was still young and could have gone on to captain for a few more years. But I didn’t have that desire anymore, after that series. I was disappointed losing to Zimbabwe. That was one of the lowest points in my career, but nothing should be taken away from the Zimbabweans. They played really good cricket, adapting well to our conditions.

Q How tough was it to wear the captain’s hat?
I would say extremely tough. I would say it’s a good experience, but it is extremely tough. You will lose a lot of hair. You get a lot of grey hairs, as well. It’s not easy. It’s a good challenge. In life, you need to face all these challenges and I thought, yes, I’ll take it up. But, as time goes on, you get to a point where your body and mind say it’s enough.

Q You were talking of challenges in captaining a team. Did these come from within the team or from outside?
Captaincy is all about challenges. They can come from anywhere. As a leader, you need to stand up for yourself, without getting distracted. As captain, you got to be tough, you got to make your own decisions and, at the same time, there will be people who dislike you and people who like you. This is part and parcel of being a captain. This is reality. A captain will never be a popular person.

Q You worked with several coaches during the last few years. Who did you enjoy working with the most?
Everyone is different. Trevor (Bayliss), Paul (Farbrace), they were brilliant. Fordy was brilliant, even Jerome Jayaratne. They have their own ways of doing things and I did enjoy working with them. You may have your differences with the coach but, at the end of the day, he is your coach and you need to leave all those differences aside and work.

Q How do you see Sri Lanka Cricket’s hire-and-fire policy regarding coaches?
Like I said, these are things beyond our control. They might come in or they might be taken away, for various reasons. But we, as cricketers, shouldn’t worry about it. There are administrators to do the job. As captain, I have always told the boys that there are some things that we can control and there are other things we cannot control. So, we shouldn’t worry about those.

Q What is the role played by a coach in the present day context?
Coaches of the likes of Trevor, Farbrace, Ford or even Jerome keep things simple. They are more guides who tell you to go out there and play your best, rather than tell the players what to do. I’ve always heard from those guys, ‘Just go there and do it’. That gives confidence to the players. Then, you start leaning. It’s a learning process and the coach is there to guide, to mentor. There may be a time when the coach draws the plan, but mostly, they let the players do the job.

Q After you gave up the captaincy, Sri Lanka ran into a major crisis without a proper leader. We had at least five different captains leading the side, before you returned in January to lead the team up to the WC. What changed your mind?
When I stepped down, I never had any intention of returning as skipper. But, everything seemed to be in a bit of a mess during those six to seven months. Then, I was asked to take over the captaincy, by Chandika Hathurusingha, the new coach. He requested me to help him out until the WC. After much thought, I decided to take it up once more, purely because of Hathurusingha. I have worked with him in 2007, as well. I decided to work till the WC, then hand it over to someone else after it. I had my focus on the WC right from the start. We had plans and everything for the WC.

Q But 10 months later, you were removed, as the selectors and coach publicly ridiculed you over a lack of fitness, following Sri Lanka’s exit at the Asia Cup. What happened there?
You need to ask Graeme Labrooy and Hathurusingha who made them do it and what made them do it. I thought it was a planned attack on me, where all the allegations, etc, etc, came in. The reactions came after that. I was not bothered, because I never wanted to captain and I had accepted it purely at Hathurusingha’s request. When you drop someone over fitness, you need to have a fitness test to determine whether or not a player is fit. I got through all my fitness tests before the Asia Cup. Even after they said I was unfit, I requested for a fitness test and they went missing. So, I don’t know where this fitness issue came from. Is it something to hide behind? I don’t know. Just before the WC Hathurusingha apologized and I have moved on.

Q After you were sacked as captain and publicly ridiculed over lack of fitness, how hurt were you?
I wasn’t hurt, but I was certainly disappointed. I could have done the same thing, but I did not want to stoop to that level. It shows the class of people.

Q How was your relationship with Hathurusingha since then?
It’s just player coach-relationship, nothing more than that.

Q You have been in terrific form across all formats since the WC. However, the selectors dropped you from the recent T20 series against New Zealand. What happened there?

I can’t change what the selectors think and, if they think they want to drop me, it was their call. I was hoping to play. I was in good form. But the selectors have decided to drop me, so I cannot control that.

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