The axolotl, or Mexican salamander, is a funny creature. It is an amphibian and as a result it should develop lungs and leave the water. It never does, instead remaining as a water dwelling “walking fish”, forever failing to make that final leap that evolution had intended. As Sri Lanka lost to South Africa by 96 runs at the Oval to in their opening match of the Champions Trophy you couldn’t help but think about axolotls and their inability to transition.

It has been six years since Muttiah Muralitharan retired from One-Day International cricket, it has been two years since Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene walked away from the one-day team. Tillakaratne Dilshan quit ODIs in August last year. Throughout that whole period, people have spoken of Sri Lanka as a team in transition, a team that is looking to replace these two greats of the game that have departed the national set up. The thing is there doesn’t seem to have been any succession planning, any real idea of who could look to fulfil these roles and real evidence of progress. They were stuck and unable to make that final evolutionary step.

The first step

Sri Lanka made this tournament on the strength of being ranked inside the top eight sides in ODI cricket, but on the evidence of what we saw against South Africa, they are a long way behind the top teams. When they conceded 321 in the first innings against India it seemed that their tournament would be over.

Having won the toss and elected to bowl they would have hoped for better, but they never let India get away from them, but this was as much to do with India’s inability to kill the game off when they had wickets in hand in the last 15 overs as it was about the cutting edge of the Sri Lankan bowlers. Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Pradeep and Suranga Lakmal all went at more than seven an over across their full allocations, and while they picked up wickets, they rarely looked threatening.

The highest total that Sri Lanka had chased against India before Thursday was 301, the highest total they had ever chased against any opponent was 321. To win this match they would need to break records, and their batting against South Africa in the opening match looked pretty woeful as they stumbled to 203 all out.

In the end they made the chase look pretty easy, and the tone was set by Danushka Gunathilaka who was only playing because Chamara Kapugedera was injured. He made 76 as he and Kusal Mendis shared a stand worth 159 after the Sri Lankans had lost Niroshan Dickwella very early. At 11/1, no one gave them a chance, their inability to transition to the post-legends era was once again a talking point.

Angelo Mathews provided the calm

In truth, the Sri Lanka axolotls emerged from the water today and breathed air with ease. There was a wobble, of course. Both Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis went for runs that didn’t exist and were run out in quick succession. There was a massive uptick in the noise from the huge Indian crowd that had taken over the Oval. India were on for a win and looked certain to make the knockout stages.

But Angelo Mathews was back from injury and he proved his worth immediately. There was an evident panic from Sri Lanka and what was needed was an injection of calm and a presence of mind. There are few cricketers that have those qualities in greater quantities than Mathews. He leads this side by example, both in attitude and in deed. He had this, and although the papare band and Sri Lankan supporters were outnumbered, the longer he was at the crease, the louder they got.

Mathews shared a stand with Kusal Perera that was worth 75 runs that first put the game in the balance and then put into Sri Lanka’s hands. The drama wasn’t done, Perera struggled with a leg injury that seriously restricted his movement to the point where he couldn’t carry on.

Then Mathews started to limp, the leg injury that had kept him out of the side appearing to hamper him. That didn’t stop the Sri Lankan skipper. He had a game of cricket to win and India were on the ropes. He cut and pulled his way to 52 not out from 45 balls. When he hit the winning runs, he roared and banged his back with his bat pointing to his name. The game was won, and while Mathews didn’t top score, he finished the job.

This win certainly doesn’t answer the questions of transition, Sri Lanka remain water-bound amphibians that are yet to develop lungs that can breath on dry land. But it has kept them in this tournament and very well placed to make the semi-final. There are a great number of issues that this Sri Lankan team face going forward, and the chances of them winning this title are slim. However, this was a great win that can be used to build on.