At Auckland in early 2016, Angelo Mathews walked in to bat at no. 5 in a T20I against New Zealand with his side at 39 for 3. He would watch from the non-striker's end as a couple more of his mates perished to leave the side reeling at 66 for 5. Mathews, on 21 off 14 after back-to-back sixes off Mitchell Santner, took charge of the innings from then on. In the 15th over by Trent Boult, Mathews hit a six first ball and then drilled two more boundaries, all of which were authentic cricket shots.
He would end the innings with three more fours off Boult in the final over to finish on 81 off 49 balls, just the kind of power knock you would expect from a No. 5 batsman in a T20 game. Sri Lanka would go on to lose the match and Mathews would go on to bat just 12 more times for Sri Lanka in the format.
In the preceding two years before the knock (from the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2015), Mathews was among the top five run-getters across formats in international cricket. His company? An esteemed quartet comprising of Kane Williamson, Kumar Sangakkara, Steve Smith and Joe Root. The ones behind him? David Warner, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Ross Taylor.
Each of these aforementioned batsmen would go on to either end their careers on a high in the next four years or would go on to enhance their numbers. Except for Mathews, that is.
Mathews has had a bizarre few years in International cricket. He had a forgettable couple of captaincy stints, was dropped from the side for his running between the wickets, had a good World Cup 2019, was dropped from the T20I side, was snubbed twice in the IPL auction and was finally recalled to the T20I side with no evidence of him improving his form in the shortest format of the game.
Sri Lanka's decision to recall Mathews to the shortest format squad for the upcoming series against India comes on the back of losses in Australia where they felt they lacked an anchor batsman. "We need someone who can stabilise the innings and Mathews has that experience and temperament," chief selector Asantha de Mel said admitting that it was a blunder to drop Mathews for the shortest format against Australia.
But was de Mel right? Remember, this is a selector who promoted a political influenced player in a mediocre domestic tournament in Sri Lanka - Jeevan Mendis was swapped for Ramith Rambukwella in the Dambulla team. Also, remember that a second-string Sri Lankan T20I team travelled to Pakistan and beat one of the best T20I teams since the last World T20 by a 3-0 scoreline.
There is nothing to suggest Mathews is needed by Sri Lanka in their current state. The veteran all-rounder's numbers are far from impressive: a batting average of 27.05 and a strike rate of 118.14 with five half-centuries in 11 years of T20I cricket.
Dissect his T20 numbers (franchise and International T20s) on a year by year basis and you still wonder what Sri Lanka sees in Mathews in this format, particularly in a day and age where Moneyball picks are becoming a norm. Forget International cricket, even in franchise cricket, Mathews’ numbers are rather ordinary. Even in the one year (2016) his average shot above 40, the number was arrived at owing to three innings where he remained unbeaten.
Now, Sri Lanka want Mathews to fulfil the role of an anchor in the middle-order and as such, they might think that his strike rate, which just sneaked over 100 in 2017 and 2018, isn't much of a concern. The issue here is that Mathews' reputation as an anchor stems from ODIs and Tests and he has never really done well in T20Is, particularly when chasing targets.
A split of his first and second innings average and strike rates for Sri Lanka shows that Mathews has floundered big time in run-chases.
In the second innings for Sri Lanka in T20Is, Mathews has two half-centuries - one in the semi-finals of the 2016 World T20 against England and another in 2017 against South Africa at Johannesburg.
The first one - a 54-ball 73 at Delhi - came with Sri Lanka chasing 172 for a win. They were reduced to 15 for 4 by the third over and Mathews was only required to resurrect the innings. Sri Lanka lost by 10 runs eventually, the margin considerably reduced only by some late impetus given to the innings by Thisara Perera and Dasun Shanaka. At Johannesburg, South Africa were bowled out for 113 and Mathews anchored a fairly easy run-chase without scoreboard pressure.
Batting first, Mathews has five scores of over 40 for Sri Lanka in T20Is, with three of them spilling past the 50-run landmark. Sri Lanka lost three of these five matches and made totals of 128, 145 and 142, none of them lofty enough to test the opposition teams which took 16, 19.1 and 10 overs respectively to gun down the totals.
What this shows is that impact-wise, Mathews has contributed little in T20Is. His favoured batting position has been No. 5 in this format for Sri Lanka. He averages 39.82 in the position, which is pretty good, but the strike rate falls to 117 odd which is 10 runs behind the global strike rate for no 5 batsmen from the top teams (Test teams alone considered) since the 2016 World T20.
In each of the batting positions Mathews has played, his numbers pale in comparison to the modern global average and strike rates at the respective positions.
Now, if his stats are deemed better than the other options available to Sri Lanka in this format, it is a wrong assumption too. Since the World T20 in 2016, Mathews has had a disastrous run of form in all T20s. His IPL fortunes have dwindled and his runs for Sri Lanka - 73 runs in all at an average of 18.25 and a strike rate of 97.33 - have dried up too.
He, like Sri Lanka, has not come out of the wrong notion that he is a good T20 player. Registering himself at the highest base price of INR 2 crore in the IPL 2019 and 2020 auctions, Mathews went unsold both times.
His last competitive T20 game came way back in August 2018 in the Sri Lankan T20 League. His last game for Sri Lanka was against the Proteas at home and he returned with a duck. He has since been dropped and now recalled to the team with no evidence to suggest his form has improved.