World Cup 2007

Why we love to love Sri Lanka

They have blended youth and experience, planning and flexibility, a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile. If Australia win the World Cup, the one-day game will move further into the laptop and towards power and fitness. If Sri Lanka win, it will be a triump

Suresh Menon

April 3, 2007

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'Luckily, batting such as Jayasuriya's cannot be programmed in advance. Pitch the ball to him thrice in succession at the same spot and he will hit you to three different areas of the field' © Getty Images
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In 1996, Sri Lanka crushed India's dreams en route to winning the World Cup. Indian fans who tend to draw horns and provide tails and tridents to teams which beat their beloved heroes, somehow acknowledged Sri Lanka's superiority.

It was as if they were saying, "If we can't win, then you are our next choice." A decade and a year later Sri Lanka throw India out of the World Cup, and except for some SMS jokes -- which are more affectionate than vicious -- nothing has changed. Why do we love to love Sri Lanka?

The answer is -- like Sri Lanka's cricket -- simplicity itself. A bunch of talented players come together as a team, with a heightened sense of their place in the scheme of things. There are a couple of superstars, but they are focused on geeing up the team rather than calculating by how much a six or a wicket enhances their value in the endorsement market. As the team went out to field against the West Indies, the most animated pep talk came from Muttiah Muralitharan. He could so easily have cocooned himself, kept aloof. Yet here he was, as excited as a kid making his debut. It is a rare spirit.

The simplicity extends to their game too. There are only two types of batsmen -- those who describe lovely arcs, usually over the boundary, and those whose batsmanship is made up of straight lines and high elbows. The bowlers have pace and cunning, or spin and cunning. And the wicket keeper is a weapon of mass destruction as he showed when he stumped Brian Lara off the medium pacer Chaminda Vaas or ran out batsmen by converting good throws into great ones.

Above all -- and this, I think is the crux -- this is a team which enjoys itself, and the players communicate that enjoyment to the spectators. There is something old-fashioned in the notion of enjoying the game. You are not supposed to in the post-modern era with its emphasis on winning and on calculating net run rates. But even Duckworth-Lewis smiles kindly on such teams as it did four years ago in South Africa.

They have blended youth and experience, planning and flexibility, a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile. If Australia win the World Cup, the one-day game will move further into the laptop and towards power and fitness. If Sri Lanka win, it will be a triumph of spirit

Sri Lankans have raised their game to a level of simplicity that is startling. Coaches and laptop men have made cricket unnecessarily complicated, introducing elements that restrict the expression of personality. Luckily, batting such as Jayasuriya's cannot be programmed in advance. Pitch the ball to him thrice in succession at the same spot and he will hit you to three different areas of the field. Like a master, he performs best when you call his form and class into question.

Likewise Muralitharan. He beat Chanderpaul every ball of a four-ball sequence with what looked like identical deliveries, but each did just enough to laugh at the batsman and skip out of range like a high-spirited child. The skill is impressive; the delight in exhibiting it even more so. In a team of outstanding fielders -- so Asian teams can field after all! -- Dilshan Tillekeratne stands out, just as he stands out as a batsman. As a bowler he is a super sopper, drying up runs. It is easy to imagine that players feel someone will rise to the occasion, and therefore there are no crises. But to attribute to chance what is the result of hard work and professionalism is criminal.

For Sri Lankans are one of the most professional sides in the tournament, fully aware of what is expected of them, and fully geared to doing it with minimum fuss. But professionalism does not include being dour, or boring or pedantic. Sri Lanka have shown there is room for self-expression, for sheer enjoyment, for setting up unexpected challenges even under the umbrella of professionalism.

They have blended youth and experience, planning and flexibility, a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile. If Australia win the World Cup (they must worry they have peaked too early), the one-day game will move further into the laptop and towards power and fitness. If Sri Lanka win, it will be a triumph of spirit. The happy smile would have triumphed over the furrowed brow. It is not difficult to love a team which tempers professionalism with spontaneity and moors high-spiritedness to effectiveness.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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