'We have to be ruthless' - Jayawardene
Having enjoyed their lone World Cup triumph on the subcontinent, Sri Lanka have frequently flattered to deceive away from it, but there's a growing feeling that they might be the team to upset Australia's applecart on this occasion. Having thrashed India to get into the Super Eights undefeated, the first real test of their Cup-winning mettle comes against South Africa on Wednesday, and Mahela Jayawardene is convinced that the team's ruthless streak will stand them in good stead against a side ranked No.1 in the world.
"We win pretty well at home and have that ruthless instinct," he said, talking to the media after rain had disrupted a training session at Guyana's Providence Stadium. "We bury teams [at home] but never seemed to have that kind of edge when we travel. Over the last 15 or 16 months, we have developed that. We've done well on tours in England, New Zealand and Australia."
According to Jayawardene, a pitiless approach has helped bridge the gap between talent and results when the team leaves its comfort zone. "As a team, we have realised that we have to compete harder and be ruthless," he said. "Once you have the opposition down, you have to finish the games. At home, you feel that you could win a match from any situation. If you can do that when playing away from home as well, that's what ruthlessness is, that self-belief."
Much of that confidence has been created by the effort put in by Tom Moody, the coach who was appointed to inspire the World Cup push two years ago. "Tom has brought something new to the table for us," said Jayawardene. "He's pushed us from our comfort zones and pushed us to be better players. Mentally, he wanted us to be much tougher as a group, and not just as individuals."
They'll still need more than self-belief against a South African side that has enjoyed extraordinary success in the one-day arena over the past year. There's a bit of history too between the sides, what with Sri Lankan newspapers labelling the South Africans chickens after a bomb blast caused them to abandon a tri-series in Colombo last July.
Jayawardene wouldn't dwell on such things, except to say: "As far as the history goes, this is probably our turn to win. They are the number-one ranked team, so everyone wants a piece of them. We do carry points [from the win against Bangladesh], but we're not taking them into account. Taking those early points against South Africa will definitely benefit us, so it's a very big game for us. They're a good side, but have their weaknesses as well. So you just have to penetrate them, and see if they are tough enough to handle it."
With Ireland and Bangladesh making the Super Eights, most of the fancied teams have had to revise their expectations of what will be required to reach the last four. Sri Lanka are no different. "We're not sure because the top six teams are battling for four places," said Jayawardene. "So I reckon you have to win at least half of those games. That would be a minimum. If we can win more, we can be in a comfort zone.
"The earlier you get those wins under your belt, the easier for you going forward. You just have to make sure that you make the most of the opportunities you get because things like rain could be a factor."
One of the most impressive aspects of Sri Lanka's progress has been their allround depth. The batsmen pummelled Bangladesh out of contention, and the bowlers did a tremendous job of choking an illustrious Indian line-up. "When we came to the World Cup, our objective was to have the right balance in the squad," said Jayawardene. "We knew that different venues would give you different conditions.
"Trinidad gave us a new challenge. The ball was moving around a bit and our quicks came to the fore. We handled the batting part of it pretty well too. It was one of the things we looked at when we picked our squad. We wanted to have variation in the 15. You can't say that we're perfect, but we're trying to make sure we have the right balance."
In striving for the ideal combination, some have been left kicking their heels on the sidelines, including Marvan Atapattu, Jayawardene's predecessor as captain. "He's very passionate about the World Cup, but knows what's best for the team," said Jayawardene when asked about a man surely playing for the last time at this level. "I am sure he'll have a role to play. It's all about having the right combination.
"He was not a part of our playing eleven in the first three games, but likewise others who would like to play at this level. Malinga Bandara has been doing very well but has not got an opportunity. Dilhara [Fernando] got an opportunity against India and proved that he's ready."
Guyana, and a pitch that has never been used before, represents a unique challenge. "It looks a bit different from the Trinidad wicket," he said. "That was obviously bouncier with a bit of grass on it, and did a bit throughout the day. This one does not have that much grass. It looks pretty flat. But there's been a bit of rain here and much will depend on how firm the wicket is. I don't know if it will favour us or not."
The events of the past week have seen cricket in the news for all the wrong reasons, and Jayawardene was anxious to steer clear of innuendo that suggests that match-fixing rackets are alive and well within the game. "Whatever I know is what I read in the media," he said, cleverly deflecting the question. "Personally, I've not experienced anything like that.
"Obviously it's something everybody is concerned about, but unless you have substantial evidence, you cannot judge anybody from what is being said. What has happened is very unfortunate. We're sad and shocked about it. Hopefully, time will tell us exactly what happened, and we just have to make sure these things don't happen in the future."
For the moment, he has other matters to ponder, such as a World Cup campaign that could yet emulate the magic-carpet ride of 1996.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo