Playing for the people
Among the many great stories from Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup triumph is one that Arjuna Ranatunga loves to retell. In the days before the final, the team received a fax from Colombo, promising sums of money for runs and wickets. Almost every man in that dressing room had a day-job then. Most had families turning out a modest middle-class living. Team sponsorships barely covered team shirts, flights and equipment. Even the visionary coach was paid by a foreign board.
But as the team read out the bounty for each boundary scored, and catch taken, a collective sense of discomfort rose up. The feeling stretched beyond anger or resentment, Ranatunga says. It was hurt. "We looked at each other and said, 'Is this how people measure us? That we are only here to play for money? That we need an incentive beyond the love of playing for our country?'" Such tales are so often vulnerable to embellishment, but there is no doubting the earnestness in Ranatunga's voice.
"Before the end of the night, that piece of paper was torn into pieces and cast in the bin."
In the 24 hours before the 2014 World T20 team left to Bangladesh, they were told a second-string side may go in their stead if they did not sign the board's contracts. The officials relented on that stance, but the team left without any guarantee of payment for the campaign they were about to undertake. Like the 1996 side, they also had word of an added "incentive" in the days before the final. Whether the team will bank the $1.5 million, given that sum may be conditional, is yet unclear, but as they strode to a second global title in 18 years, there could be no mistake that for Sri Lanka, playing for country and its people had not gone out of style.
They are an easy people to play for. Dwarfed by its neighbours in the north, Sri Lanka is beset by a small-country mentality. The cricket team champions the nation on a global stage, and to support them is to be a patriot. Patriotism is paramount.
Sri Lanka fans feel their team is underappreciated internationally, and if cricket's global media was honest with itself, it would admit Sri Lanka is not a team it cares about, until they tour, mostly at infrequent intervals. It is the reason Sri Lanka's major-tournament record seems an enigmatic surprise to many. It is also the reason why Tony Greig's heartfelt exultations on the island and its cricket still resonated so profoundly with the public, even now, a year after his death.
All this binds the fans tighter to their team, and the players know it. Those who have been around a decade or longer know that though the board rifles through interim committees, though governments come and go, and the game itself evolves at warp-speed, bringing new opponents and fresh challenges, the fans do not waiver. In their staying the course, the team finds its own direction. It is collective co-dependence. The Sri Lankan public so often feels ignored and disrespected by the state of the country's governance, many say cricket is their only respite. When the players are marginalised by the board, or are on a poor run, they feel the fans are all they have left.
It is significant that at each annual contracts loggerhead, the players have never refused to take the field. It is the board who threaten to keep them off it. To not play for the public would be betrayal, because in a country fitted with an archaic domestic model, shambolic first-class surfaces and a thousand political landmines, it is the fans who sustain the game and energise its spirit: who are its very lifeblood.
It is why, at the end of a toilsome Colombo day in the field, Kumar Sangakkara veers off to sign autographs and give handshakes before retiring to the dressing room. It is why, when a group of squirming kids are too shy to approach, Mahela Jayawardene goes to them instead, dropping to his haunches to greet them eye-to-eye, flashing that warm, wide smile. It is why Muttiah Muralitharan will return to a corner-shop with the signed photograph he had promised the day before. It is why Sanath Jayasuriya will fling his head back laughing, and throw an arm around a stranger who has just cracked a joke about him.
Each of these stars are now wealthy beyond measure on any meaningful Sri Lankan scale, but yet, they are all so human. Punch them, and they still bleed. Praise them, and they'll glow. So, uniquely among the major South Asian nations, Sri Lankan cricketers are free to live out their lives, as human beings, not hyper-real entertaining entities.
After the tournament win, Jayawardene was visibly choking back tears, as team-mates raised him on their shoulders at the Shere Bangla. Typically, it was Sangakkara who held it together well enough to give eloquent voice to their emotion.
"It's wonderful that the side really meant it when they said they would like to win the tournament for myself and Mahela. But at the same time, we've got 20 million other people we've got to win it for as well. It's not about me or Mahela or any single person, it's about everyone who stands with you, or behind you. I'm thankful for all the Sri Lankan fans, because without them, to have won this tournament - it would have been impossible."
On Tuesday, the team will bring their trophy to their people, on a long, snaking trail from the airport to the epicentre of Colombo's Sunday celebrations, at Galle Face. Tens of thousands will no doubt line the streets, reliving the joy of the game's final moments, grateful to the men who lightened their lives. But from atop the open bus, the team will not be happy just to breathe it in. There will be love, respect and admiration flowing down into the streets as well.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here