A bizarre and joyous night of cricket
On the night the Caribbean dream survived the worst imaginable beginning, the Sri Lankans relived their most dreaded nightmare. Over 30,000 fans watched in stunned silence as 30-odd West Indians produced the merriest celebratory waltz to cap one of the most bizarre nights of cricket.
West Indies cricket has endured such misery in the last two decades that it is impossible to grudge them their joy and certainly no other bunch of cricketers can express it with such panache and style. They had little support in the stands throughout the evening but a group of Sri Lanka fans stayed back long enough salute them on their victory parade. They were still waving Sri Lankans flags but the beat was all calypso - unmistakably, emphatically.
And at the same time it was impossible not to feel the grief and lament of a cricket-crazy nation that had prepared itself for the grandest of parties. It will be a breeze to the hotel from the cricket ground tonight, but the silence will feel eerie and the air of deflation will be palpable. The dancing on the streets on the day of Sri Lanka's semi-final win had felt premature, but perhaps those out revelling that night took their chance when they had it. Heartbreaks in cricket finals are now a recurring theme for the Sri Lankan fan.
How, though, does one make sense of the night? How could a team that blasted three sixes in the first six overs two days ago, crawl to 14 runs in six overs tonight? And how could a team that scored 32 runs in their first ten overs, its lowest-ever Twenty20 mid-innings tally, go on to win by 36?
Take this too. Two Sri Lankans bowlers gave away 23 runs from eight overs, claiming five wickets between them, and one leaked 54 for none in four. There were 101 dot balls in the match, and yet 62 runs came in three overs. Fifteen batsmen struggled to hit the ball off the square, and one man batted as if the night belonged him, hitting six sixes while the rest managed two between them. It was said after the first semi-final that Mahela Jayawardene's innings was on a different plane; tonight Marlon Samuels batted as if he was from another planet.
The World Twenty20 is a young tournament but four have already been played in five years (it took 12 years to get to the fourth 50-over World Cup). And it can be safely said that Samuels has played the finest innings in a championship final. Only Michael Hussey's 24-ball 60 in the 2010 semi-final bears comparison but, given the history of his team's wretchedness and for what it ultimately achieved, this was an innings of far deeper resonance. First, he dragged his team out of the abyss and then, in course of three stunning overs, lifted it to a place where a fight remained within its grasp.
The irony that the West Indian innings contained was unmistakable. It was their over-reliance on boundary hitting that got them into the hole in the first place. Sri Lanka's new-ball bowlers hit an impeccable length on a pitch that was slow yet bouncy, and, though not as good as the one on which West Indies had belted Australia, by no means, as poor as the one on which Sri Lanka beat Pakistan. The sign that the West Indians were not getting their way came early, when Chris Gayle gave Nuwan Kulasekara the charge and missed. That has not been his way. He clubs them standing, head still, arms swinging. But for 16 balls, nothing came in his zone, and they couldn't, or perhaps couldn't bring themselves to, find singles. The innings ground to a halt, Gayle's ended in a whimper, beaten on his forward defence.
And yet their ability to produce sixes made the difference in the final reckoning. Lasith Malinga has been carted around in the recent past, but on each occasion it has taken some special batsmanship from truly skillful players. Samuels' first six off him, a full-length ball dug out from deep within the crease, was executed magnificently, a combination of anticipation and perfect execution. It changed and set the tenor for the rest of the innings.
It can be argued that Jayawerdene, not for the first time in recent history, erred in trusting Malinga with his full quota when he had other options. Akila Dananjaya conceded less than six runs an over yet ended an over short - as did Kulasekara, who had been so splendid in his opening spell. On another day, Malinga might have repaid his captain's faith but Samuels caned him mercilessly tonight: 39 off 11 balls is some hammering; in a low-scoring game it was decisive.
But despite this sensational revival - 105 came off the last ten overs - it was the Sri Lankans who came out as the favorites after the interval. They had scored a couple of runs more on a far more difficult pitch against a much superior bowling attack a few nights earlier. Even after Tillakaratne Dilshan went in the second over, they remained on course until the 10th over, with Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara building the base.
But perhaps the nerves did them in. Sangakkara started struggling to score singles and holed out in the deep; Angelo Mathews was bowled trying a lap sweep, Jayawardene fell to a reverse sweep - a shot he had executed expertly the other night - and two other batsmen ran themselves out in desperation. West Indies had appeared frozen and fazed in the first six overs but, luckily for them, they lost only two wickets. Sri Lanka had a meltdown in their worst five overs, losing 6 for 21. From 69 for 7, there was no coming back.
As the rest of the world rejoices in a rare moment of glory for West Indies - they are after all every non-West Indian's second-favourite team - Sri Lanka will spend the night and coming days in bitter reflection. Of all the finals that have slipped away, their grip had looked the firmest on this one. They beat themselves as much as their opponents did. This must hurt.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo