No loss inspires as much regret as one conceived by spilled catches. No day feels so wasted as the one defined by a few sorry moments. For Sri Lanka, their time in New Zealand has been continually marred this heartbreak; a grim, empty eddy of "what ifs".

That a Brendon McCullum salvo might come off and that an off-colour new-ball pair would be crashed around is not so surprising, but couldn't it have been so much better if Kane Williamson was snapped up for none? It was 57 runs that he scored today, after Kumar Sangakkara failed to cling to a sharp one, low to his right. It was 213 runs and a Test series, when Sri Lanka spurned the first of the four chances he gave them in Wellington, six weeks ago. Sri Lanka had a second shot at Williamson, on 27, but Angelo Mathews parried that one overhead.

In the 37th over, Corey Anderson could probably have been held by substitute Dinesh Chandimal for 2. Instead, he made the chance seem tougher than it was and it flew over the rope. Those three at least were somewhat difficult opportunities. Jeevan Mendis circled under one, with Anderson on 43, and collected only fresh air as the ball descended, leather striking him somewhere near the groin on the way down, to add comical injury to insult.

The downed catches are the cause of so much of their woe, but also, are a reflection of the confidence of a side, that has lost 12 out of 19 completed ODIs, plus two Tests, since mid-October. That there is quality in this squad is hard to deny. Eight of the 11 men who triumphed in last year's World T20 final, were on the field on Saturday.

How much worse do they seem now, than they did a mere eight months ago? When Sri Lanka are surging, their modest shards of talent are fused together into a menacing point. Not only are the catches held, but even their rarer celestial events begin to run together. Fours begin pouring off Nuwan Kulasekara's blade. Tillakaratne Dilshan makes big breakthroughs. Boundary riders execute manoeuvres no coach has ever taught them.

When Sri Lanka are flagging, all their foibles come into sharp focus. In pursuit of a ball, Lasith Malinga's belly wobbles more than his deliveries do off the seam. Rangana Herath lumbers like he is dragging the remains of his own broken body around. Mahela Jayawardene is in a perpetual frump because even the young men who can move quickly, only flail at the ball as it whooshes past them.

The fielding has been poor for so long that it has now become self-parody. "Their guys get to the ball much faster than ours", was a warning Dilshan audibly issued to his opening partner early in Sri Lanka's innings. All through the first roaring eight months of 2014, Mathews had spoken of Sri Lanka playing for each other, "like a family". Now, when losses have stacked up, the frayed edges that are a perpetual presence in any Sri Lanka outfit, begin to unspool.

The innings' top-scorer, Lahiru Thirimanne, approximated the cost of those spills. "It was a good wicket, but 280-290 would have been really chaseable in this ground," he said. "But I thought we didn't field well, so that cost us. As a team we have to put that extra effort because sometimes crucial catches might cost end of the game. As a team we have to put our heads down and do the extra work."

The fielding lapses compounded, and the street-smarts that get Sri Lanka deep into big tournaments, deserted them. Mathews saved one Rangana Herath over, as if for a rainy day, only for Anderson to hit them like a flash flood. In contrast, Daniel Vettori was through his full quota in the 35th over. McCullum had a chasing team on the run, of course, so he was under no great stress. But Sri Lanka and Mathews - a team and captain that pride themselves on their cool heads under duress - allowed their best bowler to have one over unforgivably unused.

Mendis' two wickets for five runs from two overs also jars in comparison with Malinga and Kulasekara's combined 1 for 162, from 18 overs. Mendis' bowling form over the past month has not suggested he should be entrusted a long spell, but when frontliners are going for plenty, the bowling plan could do with a little massaging. Isn't that the nimbleness that has defined them in past campaigns, when they have ridden on the coattails of unlikely performers? Even leaving that aside, isn't that the flexibility they build into their attack when they stack the team with allrounders?

In the past, Sri Lanka have arrived at world tournaments unfancied, then taken the events by the collar. This time, when they have the most experienced top order in the world, the finest contemporary death bowler, and arguably the best spinner in the tournament, they are waiting for the World Cup to come to them, and shake them to life.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando