Genius knows its worth. Reclining back in his chair, signs of a little belly now, Muttiah Muralitharan straightened slightly as he was asked if he was pleased to have got second use of the surface. The pitch did, after all, afford a little turn. "The wicket didn't turn much," he began saying, sincerely enough, before those eyes jumped alive, "it's just that I have the ability to turn the ball." Pressmen, baying for the Indian captain's blood moments ago, broke into spontaneous laughter. Off the field now, but it is the joy which Murali brings.
For one of his calibre, 3 for 41 was all in a day's work. As ever, it is manner that speaks of the champion. At nets before Sri Lanka's first group-stage match, he bounded in for an hour to right-handers from round the wicket and only round the wicket. It was evident that he was trying to get beyond the bowler who till some years ago was deemed a reluctant operator from that side of the wicket, limiting in whatever small measure his vast range, narrowing, specifically his chances of winning the lbw.
Game time, and he snaffled Virender Sehwag at slip with a superb piece of bowling from round, and then trapped Mahendra Singh Dhoni first ball lbw from the same angle. Upon the second dismissal, Murali turned back and ran all the way to long-off, into the arms of Chaminda Vaas. "I have always been bowling with him," he said later, "and we have more than a thousand wickets; in one-day cricket, we have nearly 800 wickets. So I enjoy bowling with Chaminda. I wish to thank the team, they gave both of us a break for the trip to India. If we had gone on that tour, we would have been very tired. So I am looking fresh and Chaminda is looking fresh."
As if his bowling effort was not enough, Murali also took a spectacular catch to finish the innings of Sourav Ganguly, topping it off with a swallow dive. "I have been trying to improve my fielding, because everyone in the team sometimes thinks I am too old! So I want to make a point to those people. I want to show them I can field better than anyone else."
The Sri Lankans themselves had a point to prove, having lost to India at home in two series over the past year-and-a-half. "Any side at home is stronger," said their captain Mahela Jayawardene. "If you take us in Sri Lanka, we are much stronger than anybody. You know the wickets, you have the support of the crowds, especially when you are playing in India. You have 30,000-40,000 in most stadiums, and in Kolkata you have 80,000 shouting for you. So it is totally different. That is why when you guys asked me in India, 'You are playing India in the World Cup', I said 'Yes, but not in India. We are playing in the Caribbean.'
"What we tried to do over the last year or so is that we tried to play a lot of cricket away from home. We wanted to compete away from home, improve ourselves and see where we can be. The practice that we have been doing over the last 12 months has groomed us to compete abroad, get adjusted to wickets and conditions quickly, and play some smart cricket."
The Lankans in this tournament they have carried a real vibe, and while the work of their champions surprises no one, the maturity and consistency of the younger members has been impressive. "A lot of credit should go to our young guys, the way they batted in really tough conditions. We knew it was going to be pretty tough, especially against the Indian attack. That ball was doing a lot because they used a fresh wicket, it hadn't been used during this tournament at all.
"So we knew there was going to be a lot of movement. We managed to keep wickets in hand. I thought Upul (Tharanga) batted really well and Chamara (Silva) once again showed what a good cricketer he is. He batted through the middle period and got us to the 230-240 mark. It is really good to see the way we built our innings. The way we handled the situation and the way the Indian handled the situation, probably was the factor that made the difference."
Delighted as he was to defeat the neighbours in their place, Jayawardene would much rather that India stay on in the competition. "We would have loved to beat India and also see them going through to the Super Eights because they can beat some of the other teams as well. That would have been an advantage for us. So we haven't written India off yet. I don't think they are out of the tournament yet if my calculations are right."
Much too early, as is our wont in the media, Jayawardene was asked to compare this side with the World Cup-winning side a decade ago. "That 1996 side was an amazing team," he said. "They just outplayed everybody. They created new waves in one-day cricket. They did a brilliant job. For us, it is all about just taking one game at a time. Things have changed. There are lots of good sides and you can't make any mistakes. For us, it is focus and consistency. That's the most important thing. As long as we do the hard work and keep going - that's the main theme of this team."
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04