World T20 2014 April 8, 2014

Stars greeted by Colombo revelry

Thousands flocked the streets and the airport to get a glimpse of their heroes in what was probably the grandest public occasion since the end of the war eased bomb-blast fears

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Some fans stopped at nothing to get a look at 15 men, who right now have the nation at their feet

There was first a false alarm for the tens of thousands who thronged the Galle Face roundabout in Colombo for the second time in three days. Someone let off a vine of firecrackers, sparking an enormous wave of cheers and the flailing of a sea of Sri Lankan flags. Soon, the crowd realised they had awarded their heroes' welcome to the 430 from Mathugama. As the public bus pushed its way through the crush of bodies, the passengers chuckled. They knew who they had been mistaken for.

But soon enough, a glint of trophy gold in the amber streetlights promised the coming of the crowd's true heroes. Boys had climbed walls, braver men had climbed scaffolding, parents had their children standing atop their shoulders, all to get a look at 15 men, who right now have the nation at their feet. The 200-metre final stretch to the stage built on the southern end of Galle Face green may have been the slowest journey of the team's life. The crowd had moved in even more tightly around them, hoping to get just a few feet closer to their stars, who were wearing the grins they must have had on for more than four hours.

But there's always that one guy who goes too far. Who wants a little more than everyone else, and to be seen getting it. One man in an orange shirt attempted to climb up the side of the bus, to get within touching distance of the players, but the team were in such good spirits, they indulged even his idiocy. Two cricketers pulled him up into the open-top carriage with them, a few gave him a hand shake, then quickly lowered him back into the expanse of glowing faces.

There might have been 50,000 at Galle Face green, maybe more, as Sri Lankans of all ages flocked to enjoy the win, but around 1,500 had traveled all the way to the arrival gate at the airport to have the first possible glimpse. The children seemed to enjoy it the most, proudly holding up their posters, banding together to call out to their favourites in a small, high chorus. They would have had no memories of 1996. For many - even adults - this would have almost certainly been the grandest public occasion since the end of the war eased bomb-blast fears. In those days, a platoon half the size of the crowd itself would stalk the perimeter wielding automatic rifles, but only a smattering of cops were required on Tuesday. They had little to do.

When the team had departed, Dinesh Chandimal had been the side's captain, but it was Lasith Malinga who had led Sri Lanka in their last three games. Chandimal explained the leadership switch soon after the team landed. "I was ruled out of that New Zealand match due to an over-rate violation, but we played extremely well in that game. Thirimanne came in for me in that game, and he played well. Not only that, he had also played really well in the Asia Cup.

"So, I thought that winning the tournament and taking the trophy to Sri Lanka was what was most important to me. I haven't been in good form recently. Along with the team, I decided I wouldn't play the remaining matches, and that I would give the chance to Thirimanne, because we couldn't hide a player who was in form. I'm overjoyed that we were able to win, because it had been so difficult to bring a trophy home since 1996."

Barely a patch of pavement was unoccupied by adoring fans in the major towns along the team's route. Behind them, a rowdy, honking rearguard of bikes, cars, pick-up trucks and tuk-tuks, all bedecked in Sri Lanka flags, stretched for more than 100 metres - a civilian escort that far outstripped anything the military had provided, in the years of taut anxiety.

As the team came to their largest gathering of fans, near the sea, a thunderstorm had begun, a way out in the Indian Ocean. Lightning backlit the fireworks display and cracks of thunder embellished the sound of a hundred drums. Through all this the rain never worsened to more than a heavy drizzle, so no one wanted to leave until they had had their fill of the team and their cup. For the second time in a week, the weather had aligned for Sri Lanka.

The team took the stage and poured out their thanks on the masses. The Sinhala, Tamil and English pop played late into the evening, the people stayed and danced. It was another Sri Lankan party. The biggest one you've ever seen.

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