India v Sri Lanka, World T20, final, Mirpur April 5, 2014

Can Sri Lanka lay to rest ghosts of finals past?

India are in top form going into the World T20 final, but the on-field challenges they pose are not the only ones Sri Lanka will have to contend with; they must also shed the mental baggage of many global finals lost

As Sri Lanka fans watched Virat Kohli gun down an imposing South Africa total on Friday evening, a familiar shadow of dread crept upon many. A final against an unrelenting India, whose belief and demeanour suggest they are champions already. This has all happened before.

After four major finals in seven years, a clot of public superstitions has developed around big games. Among the more amusing is the notion that the country's president's attendance brings bad luck. This thought had been cemented in the 2012 World T20 final, when the president's arrival at the Premadasa coincided roughly with the moment the match turned, swiftly and dramatically, for the opposition.

There are other appeals to the supernatural to make sense of Sri Lanka's spectacularly heartbreaking run. A middle-order batsman, no longer in the side, was believed to be the Jonah on Sri Lanka's ship for some time. Batting first is an ill-omen, but depending on whom you speak to, chasing can be as well. Some say the curse will not be cast off until Arjuna Ranatunga is welcomed back into the administrative fold.

Fortunately for fans, Sri Lanka's players have not drunk from this irrational whirl of swill. But as they approach another grand occasion, they would be almost inhuman if the garbage compactor of previous failures had not begun to close in, in their minds.

It is an odd thing to contend with, because the team's meltdowns have come so specifically at this stage of the tournament. Sri Lanka's campaigns have often been forged on mental strength; on valiant innings, desperation in the field and soaring, irresistible spells. Twice already in this tournament, against South Africa and New Zealand, Sri Lanka have reaped victory on fallow ground. In the semi-final, even against the opponent that had set a fire on their hopes in a home final 18 months ago, Sri Lanka were nerveless and professional.

"I guess it could be the fact that you're so afraid of losing the final that it can actually contribute to you doing badly," Kumar Sangakkara had said, as he reflected on Sri Lanka's finals downfalls. "When you're playing in a final it's not really hope, it's almost a delivered certainty at times, where you think, 'This is our game and we are going to win it.' When you've done all of that and you lose, it's a much worse feeling than going out earlier in the tournament. There's no comparison between the stages of the tournament. There's a huge difference between the semi-final and the final. It's a very tough place to be, not just for players but even for spectators. The fact that you've come this far... You've won every game so far, so why couldn't you win the most important game?"

In a Sri Lanka cricket utopia, where the board does not contemplate sending a second XI to the tournament 24 hours before they depart due to monetary reasons and the best captain retains the reins until he retires, the team might have had some preparation for this eventuality: a formal exercise, led by a psychology professional, which allowed players to confront and shed their fears, and perhaps break free of the inhibition that has visibly damaged their title-hopes before.

But instead, the team is left largely to its own devices - to hope the Asia Cup triumph was enough to snap the noose, to put hearts and minds at peace and in focus. In the past, the team has sought to view each final as "just another match", but after Thursday night's victory, the senior players will have given serious thought to making drastic adjustments to that approach. They may now feel frank discussion and collective acceptance of the gravity of the next match, for themselves, their families, their fans and their country, is the surest way to ward off inhibition.

"It's also not something that we like to talk about because I think sometimes we have that fear that if you talk about it, you might jinx it, or if you talk about it being a final you might change your attitude or the way you think," Sangakkara had said.

"At the back of your head you know it's a final. You know what winning it means. You know what it means for yourself and the team and the people supporting you. One of the most important things that we've got to do is work on better, clearer communication, especially before big games - about exactly how we feel, because how we feel has an impact on what we do on the field and how we approach a game.

"The one thing we haven't done is express our fears, or whatever our feelings are, fully, before a final - especially the day before and the two or three days leading up to the final."

Whether those feelings have been laid out in the open before this game is unknown. Sri Lanka players rarely give much away in public, and in any case, it is not ideal to bring the public in on a heartfelt, load-shedding exercise. Perhaps Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene's departure from the T20 team may spur the flow of raw emotion that might make this discussion effective. Whatever the case, Sri Lanka have far more to overcome than Kohli's broad blade and Amit Mishra's drift and spin on Sunday evening.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 11:21 GMT

    Wish both the team all the best): Indians salute to two great players of Sri Lanka. The world of cricket will definitely miss them.

  • Janaka on April 6, 2014, 11:01 GMT

    I think Sri Lanka will win tonight. Now, the team has realized many problems they have, and they are under a very positive captain, Maali. Anyway, it's between two Asian teams, so whichever happens, that's ok. I just feel a good victory tonight. Not saying I fake it, I really feel it... Of course India is superb, their batting is extreme ever since they played, their spin attack is also superb, and the fast bowling unit is also good at times. Sri Lanka flies under the radar, of course, except a few names. But, they can do the job for you. This is how Sri Lanka succeeded in many matches. And I have a strong feeling that today, we are going to win. I think it's all about winning moments by holding your nerves without giving up, and continuously playing intelligent cricket. Inner peace in a fire zone; that's what it all about.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 9:07 GMT

    I fear the pressure on other players because of twin towers last game and may lose them their cup winning.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 7:21 GMT

    Guys check stats and records in Asia ( Bangladesh) because this game is played in Asia. Stats in Australia, SA, NZ and England are not important here. I have also seen India was whitewashed by Australia few years ago with Dhoni and Kholi intact. They did not do very well in NZ recently. I do not think India is a bad unit so are Pakistan and SL. There are other factors apart from stats. I am a SL fan living in Australia. I was fortunate enough to watch both series involving Australia and NZ against India.

  • Dinesh on April 6, 2014, 6:16 GMT

    India is definitely the favourites to win today, they are the form team they know the Sri-Lankan players in & out. SL did win against Ind in their recent last two outings, one has to see that Dhoni did not play/bat on those two innings. Also, warm up games don't matter.

    I feel Dhoni is a bigger threat to SL than kholi, Ashwin or Raina. Hope kusal can give us a good start. As a fan I can feel the pressure from Friday. All the very best team SL. I hope SL team wins. We wish you all the best :-) we will miss Sanga Mahela & Dilshan.

  • Mohamed Afulal on April 6, 2014, 4:18 GMT

    Looking at the way teams reached thus far India had a clean slate whilst Sri Lanka had a minor jolt. This won't mean anything. What really matters is who wins the toss, what they elect to bat or bowl first and how they execute their plans on paper at the ground. Thereafter it would be up to two teams to showcase their energy more than 100 pct to their team.

    Good luck to both teams while this be a great send off two stalwarts who called quits come Sunday the sixth April 2014.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 4:13 GMT

    @Aruna Jayawardene,

    No doubt Lankan bowling attack is better than Indian in any conditions but check your teams records against India in neutral conditions. If you compare India vs Sri Lanka in Australia, England and in South Africa you will India has defeated Lanka more than the other way round.. If our batters relish slower lower pitches so do yours.. What is Mahela Jayawardene's overseas record ??? In any set of conditions Indian batting is technically as well stroke making quality wise superior to that of Lankans.. Your bowling is undoubtedly better than ours but cricket is not just about bowling !!

    Having said that tommorow is just a one off game and anything can happen.. Best of luck to both the teams.Otherwise check India vs SriLanka in all conditions and I am sure Indian record will be better in most non-Asian locations !!

  • Dummy on April 6, 2014, 3:43 GMT

    Sri Lanka have developed the ability to pull through tight situations and that helps them win tight games. However, as Manjrekar has said here on Cricinfo, they lack the X-factor and that really puts them at a disadvantage against a side like India, who have not only, the X-factor (Kohli who performs regularly) but also Y, Z, A, B, C........ factors. If 2 or 3 out of Kusal, Mahela, Sanga, Dilshan and Angelo fire in batting and SL put up close to 200 batting first or if one or two out of Lasith Malinga, Herath, Senanayake and Seeku fire to cause a batting collapse if India bats first, Sri Lanka would stand a chance. A few too many ifs though, given the way Abhishek Purohit's Icemen have been performing lately. Of course the Lankans did thaw them in the Asia Cup recently and could they repeat it today?

  • Suranga on April 6, 2014, 3:42 GMT

    As Manjekar said, SL lacks X factor. but no one can deny, they were here without that x- factor. n they beat teams that had several x-factor. I just hope this is a another one of those matches.. SL should win without x-factor, just for the sake of Sanga n Mahela may be also for Dilshan.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2014, 3:13 GMT

    If anyone deserves a world cup its Sri Lanka !! Gonna be a great game!

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