The 10 balls that preceded Kumar Sangakkara's final ODI innings were ugly. Promoted to open in the latest of Sri Lanka's surprise moves before this quarter-final, Kusal Perera went after the South Africa quicks like a man with an axe. His innings, replete with violent swipes, a near run-out and three streaky runs, ended predictably, via an edge to the keeper. It was a horror start - a gory chainsaw killing.

And so Sangakkara arrived inside the first five overs of the innings for the first time since he began his run of centuries - no visible nerves, just the regular swivel of hips with the bat horizontal in front of his chest, and the double-windmill warm-up for each arm.

The last time Sri Lanka played a World Cup quarter-final, Sangakkara didn't need to bat at all, so dominant were they in Colombo. But here, at 3 for 1, the most fluent batsman of the tournament till then had reason to be cautious. When Dale Steyn delivered a maiden to a scratchy Tillakaratne Dilshan, he had another reason. Then Kyle Abbott, the bowler Sri Lanka would have feared least, sent down the strongest reason so far. A good length ball, pitching just outside off, jagged away off the pitch like the slips had a magnet for it. Sangakkara drove and missed. He looked down at the surface, then back up at the bowler.

All through his innings, Sangakkara had reason after reason to shelve the attacking cricket that has made him the world's darling at this tournament. His outside edge was beaten again, he mishit a few, and then when he nailed one - really slammed it out of the middle of the bat - South African fielders seemed to materialise out of thin air to stop the ball inside the ring.

Usually Sangakkara is a nervy runner at the start of his innings. In this game, he didn't even have time to take those few characteristic steps down the pitch before being sent back, so quickly were his shots being shut down. Each failed stroke, each dismissal at the other end, was like a line of twine being thrown over him. Pretty soon he was caught in a web. His first run came off his 16th ball. The boundary that took him to 10 was hit off his 43rd.

"I walked in to bat and I was trying to hit the ball into the gaps," he said of his innings. "But sometimes you time one and it still wouldn't penetrate the field, so it becomes frustrating. But you just make the best of that situation and keep fighting, keep working, and get to a stage where you can really launch. With the new rules, you can always catch up. You can be three and a half or four runs an over for the first 30, and the next 20 you can get 200 runs. But to do that, you have to have wickets in hand."

But as each promising partnership was cut short, as he was abandoned at the crease one by one by men who pride themselves on their big-match bottle, Sangakkara found himself cornered. Here was a batsman who had in recent years mastered the science of ODI risk-taking, made meek beyond recognition by circumstance. He hit Sri Lanka's fastest World Cup hundred, off 70 balls, 18 days ago. Off 70 balls on Wednesday, he had only 24.

Only when the web grew so dense that just slivers of light trickled through, did Sangakkara finally strike out. His ten runs off the 36th over raised the mildest hope. But for him, his team, and for Mahela Jayawardene, who will never play internationals again, a fourth World Cup semi-final on the trot was a step too far.

It will seem like a sad end to a great cricketing partnership, that Sangakkara and Jayawardene were last seen on a cricket field complaining to each other at keeper and slip, than thrilling a nation at either end of the pitch. It will seem unfair, that these two, who have so deftly traversed administrative waters to keep their team afloat amid chaos, will become the first Sri Lankan greats to retire without a World Cup. Saddest of all, their last stand was a limp, inconsequential 24-ball affair, when so often their associations have been so energetic, so muscular.

Against South Africa, Sangakkara's innings was the antithesis of his dynamic latter-day avatar, but both men played innings they don't deserve to be remembered by. But even through the obvious disappointment, there were smiles at the end of it all. Perhaps the pair will reflect in days to come that the years of making millions happy together was more fulfilling than this final piece of silverware could have been. Maybe they will know that it is the lifetime of grace and excellence they have given the game and their country that is their legacy, and not this short, stinging night.