Once again, a nation expects
There is an unnatural hush in the Khettarama locale of the Premadasa Stadium. The area is often a crush of commotion; tuk tuks spluttering around a labyrinth of roadside stalls, produce vendors squawking out prices to a tangle of passersby, and in the evening, the Muslim mosque and Buddhist temple on opposite ends of the ground go toe-to-toe on loudspeakers. On the eve of the first major final the stadium has hosted, only the yelps of children playing with a taped up tennis ball and homemade bat pierce the quiet. Here at cricket's coalface, the suspense is unmistakable. Over the past few days, it has spread swiftly from the tournament's nerve centre to every corner of the island. Sri Lanka are in another final, and this time, they're playing at home.
For many fans, the pain from the 2011 World Cup final loss was still raw when this tournament began. They had expected Sri Lanka to win that trophy, imagined the team arriving triumphantly and parading along Galle road as it had done in 1996. Many had stockpiled fireworks to set loose at the clinching moment. Others sprung for new televisions and antennas to behold the spectacle in the highest number of pixels their money could buy. What stung them most was not that Sri Lanka lost, but that the team had seemed so limp in the field - hapless against a more determined India. Many swore off cricket that day. Unfairly, there was even a hint of betrayal because they felt the team had not really tried.
That is not a criticism anyone will level at Sri Lanka in this tournament. There have been all the hallmarks that make the hosts such a watchable side - a mystery spinner bagging the format's best ever haul, a captain who seems to fashion savagery from silk and a gifted teenager who has taken the pressure of international cricket on the chin. But this time, Sri Lanka have backed their flamboyance with an iron will. When tested, they have shoved back harder, and like lovers who spurned-then-returned after realising they couldn't do any better, Sri Lanka's fans have flocked to support the side once more.
Mahela Jayawardene has been on the forefront of the team's new resolve, and for all his instinct and brilliance on the field, it is his understanding and focus that has snapped Sri Lanka out of a post-World Cup funk, and brought the joy back into their cricket. He has his own reasons for wanting to rid himself of the reins, but while he has been at the helm, Jayawardene has coaxed the best out of the individuals under him, and cultivated a resilience the team had missed. Youngsters like Thisara Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne have flourished on Jayawardene's watch. At the older end of the scale, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Rangana Herath have revelled in the freedom to be themselves.
Part of the attraction of Sri Lanka's campaign has also been the breadth of contributions they have benefited from. Unlike West Indies who have fired or failed largely on the strength of Chris Gayle's blows, there is no obvious talisman for Sri Lanka. Kumar Sangakkara and Ajantha Mendis prospered in the tournament opener, Dilshan and Lasith Malinga shone in the first Super Eights match, the middle order proved their mettle against England and Herath and Angelo Mathews bowled the hosts into the final against Pakistan. Along the way, fringe players like Jeevan Mendis and Akila Dananjaya have also made their presence known.
They have all added to the texture of Sri Lanka's campaign and the fans have taken notice. After Sri Lanka's victory in the semi final, the party in the stands spilled raucously into the streets. Tickets are selling for four or five times their retail value on the black market. Suddenly, thousands of people are wearing Sri Lanka team shirts and the anxious excitement preceding a final has taken hold.
"Playing in Sri Lanka is not an added burden for us at all," Jayawardene said. "We are very lucky to be able to do that. Playing in a final with our home fans gives the team strength and confidence. It's unfortunate the capacity is only 35,000. The enthusiasm is so much people who come in will have a great time, and the rest of the fans will find a way of supporting us as well. Their thoughts and prayers will be with the team and I really appreciate that. We enjoy having that kind of atmosphere playing at home."
Jayawardene's men will not read into three failures in recent finals, and perhaps rightly so. On each previous occasion, they were defeated by a team much better than themselves. This time, things are different. They are the form team of the tournament, and have proven themselves against a variety of opposition at three distinct venues. On Sunday night, Sri Lanka will watch once more. Perhaps this time, their fireworks will have lit up the night.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka