Under the SKanner: Angelo Mathews in Tests
Dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of Sri Lanka's best batsman in the premier format.
When the legendary duo of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara rode off into the sunset, they not only evoked tinges of melancholy in the hearts of cricket aficionados but also left a couple of gaping holes in Sri Lanka's middle-order. Angelo Mathews was the Test captain as well as incumbent star batsman ready to walk towards the throne.
More than two years since then, Mathews has relinquished leadership duties following sustained scrutiny from multiple quarters. Even as his batting form as well as average dipped substantially, his once useful bowling has now become a sporadic entity. Forget contributing with both departments, the man is barely able to set foot into the arena without injuring himself in one way or another. In short, the Colombo-born cricketer's customary phlegmatic approach has been subjected to a merciless examination of resolve.
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Having returned to Sri Lanka's Test squad after missing their historic conquest of Pakistan in the UAE, Mathews will once again be under the spotlight. With a thoroughly dominant and perennially hungry Indian team searching for yet another prey, the middle-order batsman may face a baptism of fire on Indian soil. If the visitors are going to take the fight to Virat Kohli's troops, the 30-year old has to marshall his country's batting fortunes by building significant partnerships with his inexperienced teammates.
Ahead of Sri Lanka's three-match series against the top-ranked Indian unit, let us take an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of Mathews. This particular segment focuses solely on the right-hander's batting prowess in Test cricket and hence does not factor the other aspects of his game into account.
Adept at tackling swing and seam
Mathews is among the rare breed of Asian batsmen who are equipped to tackle the moving ball. Having adopted a side-on stance, he watches the fast bowler's hands like a hawk looking for its game and subsequently plays the ball under his eyes. Perhaps, his biggest asset is that he rarely wafts away from his body during the initial phase of his innings.
A composed position at the crease enables him to read the trajectory of swing and adjust accordingly. He waits patiently by covering for the in-coming delivery. In doing so, the right-hander ensures that he cannot get caught on the drive. Playing the ball late completes his mastery over the seam bowler.
In the summer of 2014, his series-defining 249-ball 160 in the second-innings of the Headingley Test was not only a precise demonstration of batting with the lower order but also a masterclass in tackling the threat posed by the second new-ball. The manner in which Mathews kept James Anderson and Stuart Broad at bay showed his propensity to handle swing as well as seam. In what was an enthralling duel of gumption, the world-class duo kept challenging his technique outside the off-stump. However, he responded with admirable maturity and forced the seamers to bowl to his strengths.
Ability to manoeuvre the turning ball
From 51 matches on Asian soil, Mathews has scored 3549 runs at an impressive average of 50.70 with five centuries and twenty half-centuries. Even after allowing for the anomaly of the odd flat track creeping in from time to time, his record in the subcontinent (and UAE) stands as vindication of his skill-set against the turning ball. With plenty of close-in fielders hovering around for catching opportunities, it takes incredible serenity to remain unperturbed and pile on the runs. Mathews has such a quality in abundance.
The experienced batsman's penchant for taking the aerial route on a regular basis prevents the spinners from imparting extravagant flight on the ball. His supple wrists allow him to get to the pitch of the ball and consequently pierce even diligently set field placements. Although he confounds both spinner and spectator by resorting to unorthodox shots on a few occasions, his game-plan against the turning ball is rooted in convention. Hence, it becomes quite difficult for a slow bowler to get on top of him.
Recurring issues against extra bounce
From three Test matches in Australia, Mathews averages a meagre 29.16. His corresponding averages in New Zealand and South Africa are 30.62 (four matches) and 26.50 (from six matches) respectively. In sharp contrast to his stellar record in England (431 runs at 47.88), he has had a rough time in countries which produce pitches with extra bounce. Unlike English conditions wherein early summer surfaces tend to offer spongy bounce, the other three places pose a much stiffer challenge of a batsman's prowess against steep bounce.
While his rigid positioning at the crease helps him negate sharp swing, the same technique makes him prone to the element of extra bounce. He utilises the pull shot efficiently to counter the short ball. In fact, there are not too many Asian batsmen better than him at handling the rising delivery. However, it is the back of length delivery that often leaves him in a tangle.
During the 2016/17 series in South Africa, Kagiso Rabada found the perfect length to corner Mathews. The right-arm pacer generated steep bounce in his fuller than normal deliveries which lured the then Sri Lankan captain into fatal prods. The middle-order batsman also showed tendency of getting coerced into dicey positions by several good length balls which rose awkwardly at him.
Misreads straighter deliveries while playing for turn
Even though he applies considerable pressure on spinners by playing straight, Mathews inexplicably brings out the sweep and the reverse-sweep in an attempt to target vacant areas in the field. With such cross-batted shots do not figure prominently in his gifted armoury, he outsmarts himself while playing for the turn. When the ball goes straighter with the arm contrary to his expectations, he becomes vulnerable to the leg-before dismissal.
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The ratio of getting bowled to his other mode of dismissals is pretty low for Mathews. This facet of his game stems from his steady foot work. However, he brings leg-before as well as the top-edge into play while looking to usher a spinner into his arc. With Ravindra Jadeja presenting a distinct threat, the right-hander has to cut down risks by focusing on the straighter areas of the field. Against the left-arm spinner's deadly accuracy, employing the sweep or reverse-sweep could turn out to be a catastrophic strategy for the Sri Lankan stalwart.