Time for Sri Lanka's youngsters to come of age
When Angelo Mathews strode to the crease in the World Twenty20 final, the Premadasa still believed. There were plenty of runs yet to make, and the required run rate was beginning to wrap its tendrils around the innings, but something about the new man in the middle inspired confidence. Mathews had scythed Sri Lanka out of thornier tangles before.
But this time it was his anxious dismissal that ushered in the panic that asphyxiated the middle order. When Darren Sammy brought fine leg in after bowling three consecutive dot balls to Mathews, the batsman should have become aware of the trickery that was afoot. Instead, he dove into the trap. Having goaded Mathews into playing the scoop, Sammy bowled an off cutter, and ball gripped on the dry surface, evaded Mathews' stroke, and clattered onto the stumps. Fifteen balls later, Thisara Perera and Jeevan Mendis had also lost their wickets, mindlessly. It was a dispiriting display from a middle order that forms the core of Sri Lanka's future.
Mathews is now officially a captain, perhaps in all formats from February, and he and Thisara Perera are now too experienced to claim youth as justification for their failures. Both men, and others like Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne have proved capable and have built encouraging reputations, but they haven't yet taken full ownership of a team that will soon be theirs. They are not yet thinking, planning or performing on the level their seniors operate on. A home tour against New Zealand is their chance to show how much they have grown, and crucially, that they are ready to shape the team they play in, rather than simply being shaped by it.
In many ways, New Zealand is an appropriate foe against whom Sri Lanka's youngsters can test themselves against. The visitors are not so soft that any battle scars earned will be of no value but they are also not so brilliant that every minor flaw in developing techniques will be exposed and exploited.
New Zealand have no bowlers that will frighten Sri Lanka's youngsters, but the hosts can be assured that on this tour, they will be worked over, analysed and plotted against. Tim Southee bowled one of the spells of the World Twenty20 to force a tie against Sri Lanka in their match in Pallekele and Jacob Oram has also had success in Sri Lanka recently. Adam Milne has pace, though his talent may be too raw to be classified as a major menace, and Doug Bracewell and Trent Boult will provide a robust challenge in the Tests. New Zealand's batsmen aren't flawless either, but they are good enough to scourge poor bowling, and Kane Williamson is one of the better players of spin from outside the subcontinent.
The stakes are slightly higher because the tour is played at home, and there are no ready excuses should Sri Lanka's younger crop fail. There is pressure to succeed, and familiar pitches and venues at which to perform. The stage is almost perfectly set for them to take the baton from the seniors and bring Sri Lanka's post-Murali transition phase to a close.
The youngsters are also better placed to help the team overcome the disappointment of another major-finals loss. Watching another team lift the trophy in Colombo would have hurt more than any of the other runners-up medals, and the loss would have been hardest on Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan, who for all their success, know that they are fast running out of chances to win a world title. When Sri Lanka lost their last final in 2011, the team couldn't shake their funk for eight months, when they seemed rudderless and listless in all three disciplines. Mathews and company can harbour better hopes for their own futures, and it may be upto them to provide the positivity and energy that will help Sri Lanka focus on a new challenge.
Beyond New Zealand, an Australian summer beckons. It is perhaps Sri Lanka's biggest tour in years given the enthusiasm most Sri Lankans have for seeing their side get the better of Australia, and the fact that they will play their first Boxing Day Test since 1995 - when Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled by Darrell Hair. Some of the seniors may not have enjoyed previous tours there, but Mathews, Chandimal and Perera have already shown they are not daunted by a little extra pace and bounce. If they can emerge from the New Zealand tour with form behind them, Sri Lanka's hopes of a maiden Test win in Australia will be boosted significantly.
Before then though, there is plenty to achieve. Jayawardene and Sangakkara have shown no signs of slowing down yet, but they have repeatedly shown a desire to unburden themselves of leadership to focus on giving whatever they have left with the bat. Sri Lanka's youngsters must come into their own, before the reins are upon them.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka