The win they waited 18 years for
Cross the railway line from Station Road in Wellawatta on the fringe of the city of Colombo, head for the Indian Ocean and you should stumble upon Beach Wadiya, the most authentic seafood restaurant in town. It is a sand-in-your-toes sort of place, where the chilli crab is a standout and the wine list a gamble. It was here, in the mid-February of 1996, that Arjuna Ranatunga clearly explained how Sri Lanka could, and probably would, in his view, win the World Cup. The third at our ravenous table was Dav Whatmore, the Sri Lankan-born Australian coach of a talented Sri Lanka team rated a decent outside bet in the tournament that India and Australia were favourites to win.
We were dining after another day of inertia. The LTTE threat had led both West Indies and the Australians to withdraw from their group matches in Sri Lanka and forfeit the points. Consequently, Sri Lanka qualified for the quarter-finals by winning three of their five scheduled matches. One of these was against India, who they were to beat again after a controversial finish to the one-sided semi-final in front of 100,000 people in Kolkata.
There was a withering confidence about Ranatunga. He knew the strength of his team's batting and how best to set it free. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana took galloping advantage of the first 15 overs - the one severe period of field restrictions in those days. The street-smart middle order, with Asanka Gurusinha, Aravinda de Silva and Ranatunga himself the key figures, controlled the rest of the innings every bit as effectively as the limited bowling attack controlled their emotions and limitations. At its core were four spinners who bowled their overs cleverly and quickly. Ranatunga had seen into the future. On the pitches of the subcontinent the opposition's new ball had to be attacked, while your own ball needed to go soft quickly, after which the best way to use it was to take all the pace off it.
In the dressing room after the final against Mark Taylor's excellent Australian side - a game won at a canter, incidentally - Ranatunga smiled and pretty much said I told you so. In contrast, the unbridled joy of his men was something to behold. This charming little island, bedevilled by a monstrous civil war, had found cricketers with the strength and nous to conquer all. Cricket was their common love, the evidence was everywhere - in streets and parks, on fields and beaches - and now it was their identity.
It has taken another 18 years to remind us just what a monumental achievement it is for Sri Lanka to win a global event. The ghastliness of war had been almost dwarfed by a natural disaster that ripped the guts from the island: the guts but not the soul, never the Sri Lankan soul. The cricketers played on and have been close, oh so close, on numerous occasions, but not quite able to taste again the sweetness of tournament success.
How delicious that the world's most unorthodox bowler should have been the one to provide a series of killer blows before lifting the long-yearned-for trophy himself. Ranatunga and Lasith Malinga could hardly be more different men but they both feed from an unwavering self-belief and references to the original and unorthodox. It is well documented that Malinga stole the show with his overs at the death (double entendre there) of the Indian innings in Sunday's World T20 final. Those yorkers, delivered with his arm at about 45 degrees and released from in front of the umpire's nose, were the stuff of genius, for they create a unique angle when fired across the stumps and out towards first slip. Neither are they predictable for the inswinger lies in waiting, along with slower balls of various styles and lengths. Of all "death" bowlers only Joel Garner and Wasim Akram can have caused such confusion.
But there can be no celebration of Malinga without raising a glass to Nuwan Kulasekara at the same time. Rarely can there have been a cricketer of such innocent promise and yet such mighty impact. We have seen him nip out the best with a new ball in conditions far and wide, tie up ends while others did their worst, slog sixes when others failed with their best. And the other night we watched him play perfect straight man to Malinga's colourful expression. In two groups of four overs during the Indian innings the match was won and lost. First poor Yuvraj Singh got the yips - even against Sachithra Senanayake, a man he might previously have swiped to the Punjab and back - and then two "little Sri Laankans", as Tony Greig loved to call them, closed the deal. How Greigy would have led the cheers!
Andrew Fidel Fernando pointed out in these pages that this was a victory for a united Sri Lanka, and the street parties were shared by people of all backgrounds and beliefs. I am a sucker for MS Dhoni, and for Virat Kohli, for that matter, but watching Sri Lanka steal their show was utterly compelling and rewarding. The occasion was given the relevance it deserved by a fine television production and a collection of commentators who paid due attention to the achievement. Too often, Sri Lankan cricket is marginalised by the insanity of its internal affairs. Thank goodness, as Fernando said in another column, the players play for the public.
The only sadness in the whole thing was that Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have begun their goodbyes. The former has a sublime talent and rates with anyone, from any era, when aesthetic appeal is the benchmark. He played one stroke on Sunday, the latest of cuts, that drew a gasp of breath. Yes, Jayawardene has a little magic about him. At his best, the viewer is taken into a trance. Think David Gower and Mark Waugh as others once able to do the same.
As for Sangakkara, what is left to say? Alongside Muttiah Muralitharan, he is Sri Lanka's greatest cricketer. That mind, the various skills, the dignity, patience, fitness and longevity know no boundaries. Kumar seems to speak for his country: "Listen up, for we are a formidable people. We have talent and we have courage. We are not to be bullied and we shall continue to prove our place amongst you." Fittingly, it was Sangakkara who was at the wicket to guide Sri Lanka over the line. This was a super-cool innings from one so pumped, nay desperate, to justify the people's faith.
What a man. What a country. What a triumph.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK