'Favourites despite history of losses in finals' - Jayawardene
South Africa may be the perennial underachievers at major tournaments, but two days after AB de Villiers confronted the chokers tag head on, the 'C' word was uttered again, this time by Mahela Jayawardene on the eve of his side's first group match. It has been a question thrown to him repeatedly in the lead up to the World Twenty20. Three major finals in five years, yet no trophies. Is there a pattern to Sri Lanka's failures at the final hurdle? Are they simply buckling under pressure?
Based merely on statistics, it might appear that way. In the last five world tournaments, Sri Lanka have been one of the most consistent sides, with a semi-final exit to go with the three sets of runners-up medals. Since 2007, only Pakistan have played four semi-finals. Sri Lanka were talked up as serious contenders from the start in each tournament in which they made it to the final. It suggests they have played well through the tournaments but failed to perform in the finals, none of which have been close.
But beyond the numbers, there is truth to the notion that Sri Lanka have simply been outplayed by better sides in the crunch encounters. In 2007, Australia still had Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath in their ranks, and Adam Gilchrist unleashed a furious 149 in Bridgetown. Pakistan surged late in 2009 World Twenty20, and Shahid Afridi shone with the bat after Mohammed Amir and Abdul Razzak had bowled brilliantly. Last year, Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni orchestrated a near-perfect chase. In each of those matches there was no major failing on Sri Lanka's part, no significant dip in performance - they were simply bested by extraordinary cricket from the other team.
"A lot of people have asked us whether we've choked in the finals," Jayawardene said. "But I'd rather be in that position that getting knocked out in the first round or second round. We're doing some thing pretty good in these big tournaments. We're handling pressure well and getting into those situations where we can win the tournaments."
This time, with the World T20 being played at home, the expectations have been more intense. Already Sri Lanka are being tagged as favourites, perhaps in the absence of any other side that fits the bill better. South Africa may be the best team in the world, but they are yet to win a big tournament; India have a perceived weakness in their bowling attack as Pakistan have in their batting; Australia have hit a low in the rankings; West Indies are unproven against stiff opposition and England have recently been abysmal in the subcontinent. All this has heaped pressure on the hosts, and though the line most often trotted out by captains is that everyone has an equal chance in Twenty20, George Orwell might retort that one side's chances are more equal than the rest.
While most teams have downplayed their chances and stressed the fickleness of the format, Sri Lanka seem more comfortable with the pressure. "We're one of the favourites. We're part of a pack and if we can get good momentum, we could go all the way," Jayawardene said. "We can't play the hype down because we are playing at home. Sri Lanka is a cricket crazy country and the expectations will be high. We have to accept that."
The first step is entry into the Super Eights, and a victory over Zimbabwe in their first match will go a long way in ensuring that. Sri Lanka may have preferred all their matches to be in more familiar Colombo or Pallekele, but they must deal with a trickier venue in Hambantota, which has hosted low-scorers in the past.
"The first time we played in Hambantota, it was tough for us on the newly-relaid pitch," Jayawardene said. "The wind is a bit of a factor as well - it can pick up in the afternoon and evenings so you need to adjust for that. We've played a bit of cricket here, so we'll try and make use of this advantage with the conditions."
The World Twenty20 has never been won by its host nation. Over the next three weeks, Jayawardene's men will hope to reverse two trends.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka