Australia v Sri Lanka, World Cup final, Barbados April 27, 2007

Success of '96 drives tough Sri Lankans

Mahela Jayawardene: "The Australians are human and over 100 overs people do make mistakes. We need to capitalise on that" © Getty Images

Mahela Jayawardene remembers where he was when Arjuna Ranatunga and the men that he led so assiduously scripted the greatest moment in Sri Lanka's history. "I was playing in a big school cricket game [for Nalanda College] and unfortunately it was fixed on that day," he said with a smile on the eve of the final. "The first day, we had around 10,000 people watching the game, and the next day we had only about a hundred.

"Unfortunately, by the time I got home our guys had already bowled and were just about to bat. I was glued to the TV. It was probably one of the best days of our lives as Sri Lankans."

Jayawardene admitted he and his team owe their predecessors a huge debt of gratitude. "The 1996 group changed the whole concept of Sri Lankan cricket, brought in professionalism and money so that we could develop," he said. "We're reaping the rewards of that." On Saturday, a side that contains three survivors of that triumph has the opportunity to recreate the Lahore evening that meant so much to a nation ravaged by a decade of civil war.

With their relentless dominance, many neutrals have come to see this Australian side as cricket's answer to Ivan Drago, the cold-eyed Russian that Sylvester Stallone's Rocky famously subdued, and but for the banks of green-and-gold support, most will be barracking for the underdog. It was much the same 11 years ago, when Ranatunga talked down his team's chances in the build-up, only to mastermind a clinical performance in the final.

Back then, they won because the captain recognised his team's slow-bowling strengths - there were 37 overs of spin that accounted for six of the seven wickets - and their composure while chasing large totals. Rather than react to what the Australians did, Sri Lanka stuck to the basics that had served them so well throughout the tournament, and that theme resonates within the side more than a decade later.

In the latest edition of the Wisden Almanack, Jayawardene outlined his own philosophy, one that varied little from Ranatunga's. "One of Sri Lanka's strengths is the flair of our cricketers, and we must exploit this," he said. "We should not play like Australia or India or England - we should play like Sri Lanka."

If there is a difference, it lies in the pace-bowling department. Chaminda Vaas, who was still learning his craft back then, evolved into a quality left-arm pace bowler second only to Wasim Akram, while the emergence of Lasith Malinga and Farveez Maharoof has given Sri Lanka attacking options that they didn't have in Ranatunga's time.

The fact that they would be playing on a hard and bouncy pitch expected to favour the Australians didn't bother Jayawardene, who can call on some firepower of his own. "Obviously, they are a good side," he said, "but they are human and over 100 overs people do make mistakes. We need to capitalise on that."

Mahela Jayawardene: "It's all about relaxing, and there's a lot of hype back home about this, but we need to stick to our basics" © Getty Images

Both New Zealand and South Africa appeared to crumble under the weight of the occasion in the semi-finals, but Jayawardene reckoned that the presence of old hands in his camp would prevent something like that happening. "It's all about relaxing, and there's a lot of hype back home about this, but our focus is just going to be on Saturday, we need to stick to our basics and play our brand of cricket. As long as we do that and enjoy ourselves, that's when we express ourselves best."

A hallmark of that great '96 side was their coolness under pressure, a phlegmatic approach exemplified by Ranatunga. That composure was missing four years ago, but according to Jayawardene, Tom Moody taking over as coach injected some steel into a side that had never lacked talent. "Tom brought toughness and pushed us to find out what was out there," he said. "We never expected to push ourselves this far. Obviously, he's got experience, he's a World Cup winner, and knows how important it is to be mentally tough going into a game like this."

Toughness in turn has bred composure. "As soon as you panic or get tense, you stop thinking," Jayawardene said in the Almanack. "A successful team needs 11 thinkers."

Win or lose, Sri Lanka will return home heroes. On arrival in Colombo, a motorcade will take them to Independence Square, and thousands of fans are expected to line the route. In a region where players are abused and their houses stoned merely because they "failed" in a final, the Sri Lankan mindset is a breath of fresh air.

For Jayawardene, it will be the most important match of a career that was almost over before he had played for the national side. While still in school, he stopped playing for months after losing his younger brother to a brain tumour. More than anyone, he understands that, World Cup final or not, it's only a game.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo