Expectations soar as Sri Lanka enter familiar territory
Something about major tournaments stokes Sri Lanka's fire. They have now reached their fifth semi-final in six competitions, second only to Pakistan who have a cleansweep since the 2007 World Cup. In between the major events, they are often underwhelming. Before defeating Pakistan in the home ODIs in June, Sri Lanka had failed to collect silverware in six limited-overs series over 10 months.
Yet they have emerged frontrunners once more. The batting that so often seems fragile against quality bowling has grown a steely backbone. The middle order, abounding in youth, has bared its teeth as well. When England muscled past the top three on Monday, they stumbled into an ambush. The youngsters may not yet have acquired the heavy weaponry their seniors deal in, but they have enough switchblades and brass knuckles between them, and the audacity to dare anyone to a fight. Pakistan's wounds from their last scrap at the Premadasa may not yet have healed.
Sri Lanka's bowling has been their strength, but occasionally it has been made to look brittle by opponents who have cracked its unorthodoxy. With three allrounders now among their ranks, Sri Lanka have stockpiled resources capable of stepping in for ailing front-liners. Thisara Perera has had a career-defining 12 months with the ball, but he has been held in reserve during this tournament in that regard. Others like Akila Dananjaya have emerged to add mettle to an attack that has reclaimed some of the fearsomeness it surrendered since the 2011 World Cup.
Sri Lanka also understand they must win the title to appease a fan base that has been spoilt by the team's consistency in major tournaments. Having come so close so many times, nothing but a victory in the final will do for most. But first Sri Lanka must overcome Pakistan, whose zest for the grand stage may be even keener than their own.
"We are still two games away from the title, but we're extremely proud to be a part of a group that has been consistent throughout these tournaments," Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardene said on the eve of the semi-final. "When you look back, even though we haven't won, for us to be in those situations and have pushed hard is great. Yes, we haven't won any of those [tournaments] and it's a bit of a disappointment, but we have to be in those situations and if we keep getting there we will win."
Sri Lanka arrive at the semi finals as the only team of the remaining four not to have played a match at the Premadasa. They have a poor Twenty20 record in Colombo, having failed to win any of the four matches played here, though each of those results came before the square was re-laid in 2010.
Sri Lanka began their campaign on the fastest track of the tournament in Hambantota, and adjusted quickly to a slightly less bouncy track in Pallekele. As the only team that will play at all three venues, they need to adapt once again in Colombo. However, Sri Lanka's strength in and against spin should assist them at the venue that has produced the driest surfaces of the competition.
Given some of the best players of spin in the world are in Sri Lanka's top six, Pakistan are unlikely to send down 18 overs of slow bowling, as they did against Australia on Wednesday. "They've got some quality spinners, but our guys play spin quite well," Jayawardene said. "We need to look at what kind of wicket we get tomorrow. It looks a fresh wicket, one where the first-round games were played. Depending on how the wicket behaves we need to take a few tactical changes. If we make any plans we have to play accordingly."
Throughout the campaign, Sri Lanka and their captain have worn the desperation of men striving to taste World Cup success. The nation's cricket identity is inextricably linked to a single World Cup, as any builder, beggar, businessman or priest reminiscing about 1996 will attest. Perhaps for the first time in the last decade, Sri Lanka have no weak links; every facet of their game has roared to life in the Super Eights and those flames will only burn hotter in the belly of a heaving Premadasa.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka