Sport can be cruel, sport can bring immense boundless joy. Sometimes it can do both at the same time. Tonight was a night when sport hurt and uplifted in equal measure.
As Thilan Samaraweera's outside edge bisected the wicketkeeper and slip to win Sri Lanka the semi-final, the whole New Zealand team sank to their knees; something just left them, the spirit that had kept them alive when they had no business being alive had now gone. For the first time on a humid, sapping day, they looked tired. For the sixth time they had lost in a World Cup semi-final. As they walked off the field, having shaken the winners' hands, they quietly shook hands with their support staff who had come to the edge of the dressing room, and were no doubt impressed by the fight the players had put on for the last three hours. The players' faces told a different tale, though. They wanted more than just that honourable defeat.
Around them, a party had begun. In fact it had begun in earnest. Moments before those winning runs came, Samaraweera had thought he had got them through a much more convincing strike through the covers. It turned out Aleem Dar had been distracted by the fireworks outside the stadium just as the bowler passed him, and had called it a dead ball. Mahela Jayawardene, running for Angelo Mathews, couldn't believe it. The hands went up, the shoulders were shrugged, even though a win was near-certain, with four runs required off the last three overs. The tension had surely become too much to take for him. New Zealand had put up one hell of a fight.
As Samaraweera's outside edge bisected the wicketkeeper and slip, the whole Sri Lankan team rushed onto the field. Inside the dressing room they had sat tense from the moment New Zealand started clawing their way back. A Sri Lankan flag sat over each players' seat, which they themselves bring and place before every match. Muttiah Muralitharan was padded up to come next, ahead of his batting order, because he wanted to finish it off. This was Murali's last match at home, and he had earlier signed off with a wicket off his last delivery. The pads could be taken off now, and his team-mates lifted him on the shoulders and carried him around the ground. Every time Murali thought the noise in the stands had gone down a notch, he raised his arms asking for more. The crowd responded every time.
Kumar Sangakkara, their captain, would put the victory in context. "Cricket has healed all wounds in Sri Lanka," he said. "Whenever cricket was played, it seemed life was normal. We carry that responsibility with us whenever we play." It is a huge responsibility for a sport to carry, and not ideal, but that's how it has turned out to be. The life tonight was indeed normal. The bands played, the people danced, the fireworks went off as the proud cricket team thanked them. The noise was deafening, who could blame Dar for having pulled out of that delivery?
Some time before Samaraweera managed those winning runs, there was a huge appeal for a caught-behind against Mathews. He was not given out. New Zealand challenged the call. Poor technology, which is a shame for an event for this magnitude, didn't give New Zealand a fair chance to get it overturned. Sitting with a ball in his hand on an icebox behind the fine-leg boundary, Allan Donald lost his patience.
Donald, the great bowler and competitor that he was, never made it past a World Cup semi-final as a player. Tonight, as New Zealand's bowling coach, he was almost as involved as the players out on the field. He was just as desperate as the players diving all over the field. He made sure the bowlers fielded close to him, constant chat happened, advice and ideas exchanged. When the final runs came, he finally got up, shuffled the ball from his left hand to his right, then from right to left, then from left to right, gathering himself, then under-armed it to nowhere particular on the field, and went to shake the hands of the victors and the vanquished.
Unlike football, where World Cup knockouts invariably end in similar scenes, neither the victors flung their shirts over their heads, nor did the vanquished shed a tear. The joy and the disappointment ran deeper. Yet the emotion could be felt, for not every knockout game in cricket World Cups makes for such a mix. This one needed a fight from the underdogs, and the favourite's ability to take the punches. This was a special game of cricket.
Sri Lanka, through the sheer quality of their side, had strangulated the New Zealand batting, and were on their way as their top three kept things under suitable control. New Zealand, who didn't quite have the bowlers to run through a mentally strong Sri Lankan side, kept fighting, kept refusing to die, and pounced on the first opening they got. They converted one wicket into two, two into three, three into four. Against a team much higher in quality and with varied weapons, through their sprit and their fielding, they had made it clear the road to final will go over their diving bodies, and that included Jesse Ryder's, who has often been ridiculed for his weight and his drinking.
If that was what it would take, Sri Lanka would do it. They would bring New Zealand down to their knees. The final shot summed it up. Behind Samaraweera's raised arms was Ross Taylor with his weight on his knees and his face in his hands; a distraught Ryder from point would have seen Mathews celebrate at square leg; Daniel Vettori, playing his last match as captain, finally took his Black Cap off and went to congratulate Jayawardene. You felt sorry for New Zealand, you felt happy for Sri Lanka. You felt sport.