When Sabina woke up to Mahela
It takes a lot to impress them here at Sabina Park. Many of the locals who came through the turnstiles were weaned on some of the game's all-time greats. Some were here in 1983, when Viv Richards hit a violent 36-ball 61 to transform a dying Test into an improbable triumph, and those whose memories stretch back further can recall the silken strokeplay of Lawrence Rowe. So when they started purring towards the end of Mahela Jayawardene's innings, you knew you were watching something special.
At the lunch break, the word most used to illustrate his unbeaten 115 was "sweet", but those who uttered it didn't use it as you would to describe a tasty-but-insubstantial dessert. They were marvelling at his range of strokes, the impeccable timing, and an ability to find the gaps that is the preserve of the truly exceptional.
A cursory look at Jayawardene's one-day figures suggests an underachiever, and he would be the first to admit that translating immense talent into innings that matter hasn't always been easy. It perhaps didn't help that he was always marked out for greatness, or that people back home saw him as the successor to Aravinda de Silva, the shotmaker extraordinaire and hero of the 1996 triumph.
Too often a pretty cameo would be cut short by a lackadaisical stroke and the nadir was reached at the last World Cup, when his seven visits to the crease fetched him just 21 runs. His dismissal, caught behind off Brad Hogg, encapsulated Sri Lanka's limp surrender in that Port Elizabeth semi-final and you could scarcely blame him for a jittery start when he arrived at the crease on Tuesday morning.
"We were anxious and nervous," he said later. "Till I faced my first ball, it was hard to get the butterflies out of the stomach." The difference this time was that he went into the game with 414 runs to his name and three innings that had showcased a special talent.
As he had against West Indies in Guyana, he started extremely cautiously, weighing up the opposition bowling, sussing out the pitch and doing little more than tap the odd ball into the gap. At Sabina Park, as he had at Providence, he scored only 22 off the first 50 balls he faced. This though was a World Cup semi-final, and there was no Sanath Jayasuriya at the other end to tear the bowlers apart while he played himself in.
A sweep was played with such precision that the fielders running from deep square leg and fine leg nearly collided, and
other shots dragged the fielders all the way to the rope before mocking
them by crossing it
Chamara Silva and Tillakaratne Dilshan helped create some mid-innings momentum, but it was clear that Jayawardene would have to apply the finishing touches. And even though Stephen Fleming brought Shane Bond back into the attack with a view to a quick kill, it was the Sri Lankan batsmen who suddenly started to float like butterflies and sting like bees.
In a manner befitting the local legend Rowe - "There was no shot that I couldn't play" - Jayawardene shed his inhibitions and unveiled a stunning repertoire of strokes. A precise straight loft and a disdainful mow over midwicket had the crowd in raptures, but it was the delicate touches, the tickle to fine leg and the twirl of the wrist that sent the ball speeding to third man, that made him look a class apart from every other batsman in the game. A sweep was played with such precision that the fielders running from deep square leg and fine leg nearly collided, and other shots dragged the fielders all the way to the rope before mocking them by crossing it.
It was the sort of innings that defines a career. "I'd probably put this right at the top," he said. "This was a World Cup semi-final." In truth, it's hard to see how he could have played it a couple of years ago. At the press conference, Jayawardene talked of how he had benefited from the responsibilities of captaincy, and a coach who combined an amiable exterior with a tough-love approach. "Tom [Moody] has definitely pushed me to the limits," he said. "He's not happy when I'm cruising." It's a measure of the man's humility - and that applies to most of his team-mates as well - that he took chastisement in the right spirit instead of spitting the dummy like other cricketers from the subcontinent.
We all know where they ended up. As for Sri Lanka, they are where they always wanted to be. "This was a big hurdle for us to jump, but we're there now," Jayawardene said. "We've been preparing for that day for some time." The identity of the opposition doesn't bother him much. Regardless of whether it's Australia, the deserving candidates, or South Africa, the back-door entrants, Sri Lanka will have to deal with a fast and bouncy Barbados pitch.
The captain, who led with such imagination in the field, isn't intimidated. "To win the World Cup, you have to beat the best," he said simply. It helps to have gnarled old hands on board, hands that have previously touched the game's greatest prize. And though only Muttiah Muralitharan, Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas remain from that celebrated bunch, Jayawardene was in no doubt as to how much his crew owed to Arjuna Ranatunga's world-beaters.
"The '96 guys changed the face of Sri Lankan cricket completely," he said. "They paved the way for us. Those guys went through a lot of hardships, and we're reaping the rewards for that." The biggest harvest awaits on Saturday.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo