Walking through the Khettarama neighbourhood into the R Premadasa stadium on Sunday afternoon, it was impossible to contain a smile. Police had cordoned off the streets leading into the grounds to ease congestion, but the locals had taken that as a signal to begin the street party early. Stereos were set up on the roadside, pumping everything from baila to Western pop, grown men were dancing with children, Sri Lankan flags were draped across every balcony and awning, and the face painting stands and popcorn stalls were bedecked in blue and yellow. It was supposed to be the warm-up event, the precursor to the night's long celebrations.
Eight hours later, those same streets were deserted. No anger, no riots, just the profound disappointment only silence can convey. Signs in Sinhala reading "Victory to Sri Lanka" still flapped in between the lamp posts they had been anchored on. No one had had the will to remove them. Sri Lanka had hurtled to a cricket frenzy over the last few days, but their expectations have crashed and burned even more quickly. The country now awakes to gloom, and its team to questions that do not have easy answers.
How to make sense of a loss so bizarre? Of a team who gave it away so freely, having fashioned their campaign of newfound fortitude? They had trussed up Chris Gayle, and gagged the West Indies top order for more than half their innings. So dominant were the hosts at one stage that their fans might have been glad for Malinga's expensive 13th over. It is more satisfying to win against a worthy opponent after all. How to make peace with the thought of a captain so renowned for his acumen, sending forth his poorest bowler of the evening to be slaughtered across his full quota of overs? How, given West Indies had managed only to take the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan in both the Super Eights match and the pre-tournament practice game, did Sri Lanka's batsmen succumb so comprehensively that only three men among them breached double figures?
Even more disturbingly, what is behind Sri Lanka's inability to take that final leap to a secure a title? After the match, Mahela Jayawardene said there was no theme tying the four finals losses together, and given the quality of the champions on each previous occasion, he might have a point. But in front of a desperate home crowd, and having progressed so ominously throughout the tournament, perhaps this loss will sting the most. Sri Lanka will not have the chance to host a major tournament again until the next decade at least.
"It hurts a lot," Jayawardene said. "It hurts because you want to do something special. Not just personally as individuals but for the public as well. We've been playing some good cricket but we haven't been able to cross that hurdle. As a cricketer, it hurts a lot. We need to move on and try and see how well we can get over this and get back on and keep fighting again."
The pluck that had defined Sri Lanka's campaign suddenly deserted them in the biggest game. It was as if they had used up all their mettle on the semi-final dogfight with Pakistan. The bowlers cowered when Marlon Samuels and Darren Sammy swung hard and the batsmen shrunk away when faced with persistent bowling of good quality. It is clear Sri Lanka responded poorly to pressure against West Indies, but it is also too simplistic to label them chokers. The ease with which they've cleared the penultimate hurdle en route to each final proves they have the capacity to handle big matches. Still, at some point, the aggregation of so many finals losses will put some serious dents in the team's confidence. It is a strange record, but it is one that will now hang heavy above them in any crunch encounter.
In the short term, Sri Lanka now face the prospect of having to pick themselves up after another heartbreak - something they failed to do after the 2011 final loss. Jayawardene's resignation from the Twenty20 captaincy, though well intentioned, has thrown up yet more questions. Angelo Mathews' short dalliances with leadership may have been encouraging so far, but will his own development suffer if he is burdened too early (as he might be if Jayawardene steps down from all formats in January)? He is too important a player for Sri Lanka's future for the selectors to make that mistake. Is the young middle order around Mathews growing as it should? Twice in this tournament they have underwhelmed against high quality bowling, and they are yet to add dependability to their flair.
Sri Lanka have three weeks to perform the post-mortem before New Zealand arrive. In December, they embark on their biggest tour in years when they travel to Australia for a three-Test series. They cannot afford to let another defeat faze them for long. The World Twenty20 title might have provided a positive launching pad for the future, but for the moment Sri Lanka must introspect. The way ahead is unclear.