Perennial bridesmaids SL seek to break hoodoo
Sri Lanka have an enviable record of success at global limited-overs tournaments. Sri Lanka have an unenviable record of failure in global limited-overs tournaments. These are not two states in binary opposition but simply a choice of perspective. As ever, Sri Lanka came into the World T20 as one of the favourites. That tag may bring pressure but even more unwanted would be another runners-up rosette to go home with.
Including the Champions Trophy, Sri Lanka have reached the last four or better in six of the previous eight events, going back to 2007. The prize has eluded them every time. Their semi-final in this tournament will be a rematch of the final from last time around, when West Indies stole the hosts' thunder. The 1996 World Cup was a defining moment in the history of Sri Lankan cricket but dust is gathering alongside it - and the shared 2002 Champions Trophy title - on the shelf.
"It hurts a lot," was how Mahela Jayawardene responded to the pain after a night of seesawing drama in Colombo less than two years ago. "We need to move on and try and see how well we can get over this and get back on and keep fighting again." Jayawardene is no longer the captain (at least in name) and, like his old comrade Kumar Sangakkara, will retire from international T20s after this competition. They will have a maximum of two more games to "keep fighting" in this attempt to earn a reward commensurate with their illustrious careers.
Sri Lanka's passage to this point has not been as serene as some predicted, although they managed to top Group 1 on run rate. They were pushed hard by fellow semi-finalists South Africa, then ambushed by England on a dew-drenched evening in Chittagong and it required a show of bottle, with Rangana Herath playing the genie, to haul themselves past New Zealand in the final match. For all their success in Bangladesh over the last few months - including winning the Asia Cup - they have not had it easy this time (apart from against the Dutch, that was easy).
Paul Farbrace, Sri Lanka's coach and the only Englishman still left in the competition, believes that the win over New Zealand proves his team will be on their mettle against the holders, whose form is becoming more ebullient by the game. Jayawardene, disconsolate after the 2012 final, was at the forefront again, so pumped up before taking the field in defence of just 119 that "he nearly knocked me out of the way", said Farbrace.
Beating West Indies would put something to rest, maybe, but Sri Lanka would still not be in possession of a trophy. Or rather, a global trophy, because the Asia Cup has already left Bangladesh with a Sri Lankan luggage sticker attached this year. Fear of failure can be self-perpetuating but Farbrace dismissed any thought that Sri Lanka's record of the last few years would have a psychological impact.
"You could look at it that way, you could also say they've done really well in most competitions and got to finals and that's where teams want to be, playing in the big games. I think we had a big win here in the Asia Cup a few weeks ago, we beat India, we beat Pakistan twice and I think that was a big hurdle for the team, to win the Asia Cup, and win it pretty convincingly. The final was a pretty convincing win and I think that gave the team an awful lot of confidence.
"We've had a lot of very close games the last few weeks and when you win them, the confidence you get as a side, you believe you can win from anywhere. The other night, a lot of people would have written us off at the halfway stage against New Zealand but once Brendon McCullum went, you could see the absolute belief in our team that they could win from there. Games like the other night give us so much confidence going into big games, semi-finals or finals."
Farbrace added that "what happened two years ago won't be talked about", though the opposite may be the case in the other dressing room. West Indies also showed their minerals in a virtual quarter-final against Pakistan on Tuesday, recovering from 84 for 5 with five overs of their innings remaining to win comfortably. It was a remarkably similar position to that which they found themselves in against Sri Lanka that last final, at 87 for 5 from 15.3, and triggered another coruscating response.
As in Colombo, Sri Lanka will have the perceived advantage due to the conditions - though West Indies are quite at home on slow, low pitches too. The stunning intervention against New Zealand by Herath, as eye-catching as he is unassuming, has given Sri Lanka "a lovely headache to have" over the selection of their spinners and one that may be resolved by selecting all three - Herath, Sachithra Senanayake and Ajantha Mendis - to take full advantage of the drier Mirpur pitch. But as Saeed Ajmal and Pakistan found out, West Indies are not easily turned over in this format.
"As a team you look for every advantage you can possibly get but I don't think we can hold too much to the fact it is subcontinent conditions," Farbrace said. "West Indies are playing brilliant cricket, they've shown that. They will obviously get a lot of confidence from winning the World T20 in Sri Lanka and they played fantastic cricket [on Tuesday] night, but it really is about who plays well in that three hours of the T20 game, that's the really important thing. It's the team that comes into it with the really good mindset, really prepared to give it a go and leave nothing behind. If you do that, you give yourself a great chance."
Jayawardene has already put a dislocated finger behind him in this tournament, though his batting, which includes an 89 full of reprieves against England, has not been at its most sparkling. Sangakkara is also yet to make a mark, while Tillakaratne Dilshan may be closing in on his final scoop. They will not need a sermon on the difference between success and failure.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here