Day 2 at Chester-Le-Street, began, much like did, on Day 2 at Headingley. With Sri Lanka still very much within striking distance of breaking the game in their favour. At Leeds, England started the day on 170-5, at Durham, with batting conditions improving, Sri Lanka was preparing to reel in England from advancing their 316-6 position. But, instead, both days ended with any promise of Sri Lanka gaining ground in tatters. It is as if there is an unwritten law that prevents Sri Lanka from stringing together two good days next to each other.
However, Durham was more painful given that Day one had seen Sri Lanka mending some of their mistakes from the game before. The fielding which had been so abject in the first Test improved beyond any supporters wildest imagination. Regrettably it was a false dawn.
At the heart of this iteration is Angelo Mathews. Sri Lanka’s captain, leader and the most senior player in the side. The man tasked with shepherding this inexperienced side through one of the toughest years of Test cricket Sri Lanka has to battle through. Or rather endure through given the current state of affairs.
Day two at Headingley saw Mathews oddly employ boundary riders at the start of play. He pulled out the same tactic again at Durham. This was at a time Sri Lanka were trying to bowl England out for under 350. It made as much sense as it did a week ago.
When the bowlers had finally broken through to the tail end of England, Mathews did not seek to finish things off. Instead, he once again spread the field for Moeen Ali, who by now had a century to his name, in the hopes of giving him a single early in the over so that his bowlers could attack the tail-ender. The traditional approach then is to bring in the field in once again to prevent the set batsman taking easy single to retain the strike. Yet, Mathews seemed to have forgotten this part of the plan. And even more bizarrely, Ali also refused the singles in those last 2 balls of the over. This was not in a one off over either. It was an extended passage of play. It was truly astonishing cricket. There have been many claims for slights against the spirit of the game in the past, surely, this must one also be considered as such.
Ironically, Mahela Jayawardene, considered by some to be one of Sri Lanka’s finest captains, was in the commentary box at the time. Had it not been for the fact that he was actively trying to work out just what Mathews was up to and attempt to present that to the listeners, he would have been lost for words. It is fair to say Jayawardene was seething at the time and perhaps even embarrassed. Mahela has otherwise been mild mannered and soft spoken in his first foray into commentary in this series. This was first real instance of him getting worked up. It really was that bad.
Then, of course, there were the dropped catches. There were three of them. And with each drop, Mathews seems to unravel and they were leading him towards decision-making that let Sri Lanka down badly. Each mistake deepened the cracks that had formed in his mind. It became a terribly vicious cycle.
This was in sharp contrast to the Mathews we saw back in 2014 on Sri Lanka’s last tour to England. In it, he led from the front with runs. He shuffled his bowlers endlessly chasing for victories. If one tenth of that Mathews had turned up in 2016, Sri Lanka would have been infinitely better off.
It seemed inevitable that his negativity and frozen mind would seep into batting. Mathews has never had the best defensive technique. And his weight of runs as captain came when he was able to tighten it sufficiently. In the three innings on this tour, all that hard work seems to have gradually loosened. He played an expansive drive to a ball miles outside his off stump before edging behind a couple of balls later. Everyone heard the nick. Surely this included Mathews. Having come under fire for not reviewing his dismissal in the first innings at Leeds, Sri Lanka’s captain played to the audience by reviewing it this time.
It was the sign of a man who had completely lost his way in his mind. Mathews was broken. Sri Lanka were crumbling around him as a result.
Coming into this series, there were many question marks for Sri Lanka. How would their inexperienced batting order fare in early May England? Would the bowling attack be able to repeat the heroics of 2014? What is Rangana Herath’s role? How would the team respond to losing Dhammika Prasad? The list goes on. The one constant that all the answers to these hinged on was Mathews. He was the man who had to lead, score runs, captain well and take responsibility.
At the moment, Sri Lanka is being flayed alive on this tour. They expected battle wounds. They expected a body count. But it is disappointing and unexpected that they were felled by their heart being pierced first.