The recent Sri Lanka Cricket press conference to announce the team to play England and the sacking of Angelo Mathews as captain, left the audience with more questions than answers. The main reason for sacking Mathews according to Hathurusinghe and Labrooy was his deteriorating fitness levels. It was highlighted that Mathews struggles to keep up with the physical demands of high intensity formats like ODI’s, due to his poor fitness. They highlighted that Mathews holds the world record for the most involvement in run-outs and that most of those resulted in his partner being out. While these explanations made cricket sense, what did not make logical sense is the fact that these same fitness issues existed when Mathews was talked into captaining the team by Hathurusinghe and Labrooy.
Hathurusinghe took over the Sri Lankan head coaching job in January 2018, at a time Sri Lanka had been struggling to find a permanent ODI captain. Angelo Mathews stepped down as captain after the shocking ODI defeat to Zimbabwe at home in July 2017. Upul Tharanga replaced Mathews as captain and did win an ODI Tri-Series in Zimbabwe that involved the West Indies as well. However, three 5-0 defeats against South Africa, India and Pakistan and probably the refusal to travel to Pakistan, cost Tharanga his captaincy. With Chandimal having had a forgettable ODI series against Pakistan, selectors turned to Thisara Perera as captain for the tour of India in November 2017. Thisara Perera's appointment was on a temporary basis until Hathurusinghe took over the job and contributed to selecting a permanent captain.
Hathurusinghe had very little options from which to pick the ODI captain. Tharanga had been deemed uninspiring. Chandimal was struggling with the bat in the format. Thishara had not warranted a permanent place in the team. It is a well-known fact that Hathurusinghe always had a high regard for Matthews’s ability as a cricketer. Hathurusinghe was his coach when a young Mathews made his mark on an A tour to South Africa in 2008. It was perhaps this relationship, confidence, belief in Mathews’s ability and experience that prompted Hathurusinghe to put his faith in Mathews as his World Cup captain. The fact that a fit Mathews would always warrant a place in the side was probably the main factor behind the decision.
While the decision to appoint Mathews might have seemed logical to Hathurusinghe and Labrooy, there were some dark clouds hanging over this decision. The most obvious was his never-ending fitness struggles. Perhaps Hathurusinghe and Labrooy saw it as a risk that comes with greater rewards. In addition to the fitness related risks, a Mathews lead-team had been accused of engaging in ‘suspicious activity’ during the 2017 home ODI loss to Zimbabwe, which prompted the ICC to conduct an investigation. One of the events that raised many eyebrows was the uncharacteristically slow batting of Angelo Mathews in SL’s loss in the 4th ODI of the series. At the time of re-appointing Mathews, SLC CEO claimed that the ICC had cleared SLC of any wrong doing. However, it was later reported that the investigation was still on-going.
Mathew’s return to captaincy has looked like a painful-crawl, than a positive stride towards World Cup preparations. He was injured after just one match in Bangladesh in January 2018. He came back to captain the team against South Africa, where Sri Lanka won the last two matches after heavy defeats in the first three. Although he scored two half-centuries, Mathews looked like a captain desperately trying not to break-down with an injury than to inspire his team to a series win.
Mathews headed to the Asia Cup with more than a point or two to prove. He needed to prove his fitness and provide the leadership and inspiration that his young team needed if they were to get past the first round. Instead, Mathews ended the tournament with no wins and looking like a captain who had also lost the trust and support of his team. The manner in which he ran out two of his partners in consecutive matches refueled the conversations about his involvement in suspicious activity. His inability to commit 100% to the team’s cause and even worse, the risk he brings to his batting partners, must certainly have diminished his reputation and respect in the dressing room. At a time when he was expected to be the inspirational leader, set an example for playing with the highest intensity, commitment and honor, Mathews had simply fallen flat.
Hathurusinghe’s and Labrooy’s suggestion that Mathews was removed from captaincy on fitness alone does not seem to add up. Mathews has played seven ODI’s in a row and walked off the field without help in each of those. He looks as fit, or to be more accurate, unfit, as he had been on the day he was reappointed captain. Perhaps there is more to this story. Perhaps Mathews has indeed lost his respect in the dressing room. Perhaps some of his actions raise enough suspicion to continue to attract unwanted attention to the team. Perhaps if all of this is indeed true, then why wouldn't the Cricket Board officials make a public announcement that certain incidents are under investigation and the captain has been asked to step down until the conclusion of it. Perhaps the good men in position of power (directly or indirectly) at SLC aren’t hypocrites, which is also why they did not prevent the re-appointment of Mathews while there is still a pending ICC investigation. Whatever it might be, one thing is for sure, Hathurusinghe and Labrooy have finally realized that the gamble they took has more risks than reward!