Can Sri Lanka lay to rest ghosts of finals past?
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