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'Sri Lankan fans embrace the team, not just icon players'

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara go over their World T20 win, and feel grateful to have fans whose support remains unwavering in victory and defeat

Fans cheer the Sri Lanka players on their return to Colombo, Colombo, April 8, 2014

Kumar Sangakkara: "We didn't expect the reception to be that big - to have an unbroken line of people from the airport to Galle Face"  •  AFP

After the 2012 World T20 final, you had had four finals losses in a row. Had the feelings surrounding those disappointments compounded?
Mahela Jayawardene: Yes, they had. The toughest ones were the 2011 and 2012 finals, because we had executed a lot of game plans to get to that stage. In the other two the planning wasn't there as much, in the sense that myself and Kumar were a little younger and we just went with the flow. We got to those finals and probably didn't understand what it took to win. The 2012 final, after all those losses, and a home final in front of our own people - we were probably the favourites for that. It was very tough to digest that for a few days.
Kumar Sangakkara: When we qualified for this final, you think, "Oh no, what if we lose this one? We would have lost five!" How do you deal with that? It's not just about us, it's about everyone watching as well. But at the same time you've got to resign yourself to the fact, win or lose. So you see-saw between the two extremes.
Did winning the Asia Cup final help ease that tension around finals?
MJ: The way we played that final showed that we had the confidence to control a game and finish it off, so that probably helped us with the T20 final as well.
In this tournament it wasn't one individual, not just one or two guys, it was the entire team who performed. Kusal Perera in the South Africa game, Rangana Herath or Angelo Mathews in the semi-finals - the way he batted. It was beautiful to see all that.
You had an open-top bus parade on your return from the Asia Cup. Did that help spark something in the team?
MJ: Honestly, we did not expect that kind of welcome, but we realised how much the fans here appreciate the team. Even when we came back from the 2007 final, when we lost in the Caribbean, we had an amazing parade. People lined up even though it was pouring down with rain. From that time onwards I knew the fans in Sri Lanka are amazing.
Does that kind of response from fans add to the pressure on you for the next tournament, or is it a source of strength?
KS: It is a source of strength. At the time we were thinking, "Imagine what would happen if we win a World Cup? How many more will be out there?"
The first inkling we got about the support at home was after the semi-final. So many people were getting together in groups to watch games. They all wanted the feeling of being at a game with their friends, and to have that carnival atmosphere. With the numbers we were hearing were coming to watch, we thought, "It seems pretty serious back home, and they're really expecting us to win this." It's not as if they were thinking, "Oh it's another final, we're probably going to lose again." They were actually thinking, "It's another final, and another great chance to win." It really is inspiring to see that outpouring of support, just to catch a glimpse of kids running alongside the bus. It wasn't for Maiya [Jayawardene] or me. It was for more important reasons to do with the fans and people of Sri Lanka.
What makes the Sri Lanka fans different?
MJ: It's the way they embrace the team. What you have to realise is that the icon players come and go. And the fans realise that as well. Over the years we've had some greats, but the fans don't go away with those players. They stick with the team.
If you see how they cheer all the younger guys who did well, it was amazing. Just the crowds in Galle Face that night we came back was amazing - something I've never seen. I can imagine what the place was like after the final. I saw some of the pictures. It would have been amazing to actually stay here and go through that.
"When we lose a game, it hurts a lot. Then you know how bad it is and you don't want to have that feeling. Even when we play football to warm up, the losing team takes it really badly"
Mahela Jayawardene
Before you left there was a lot of upheaval around board contracts. How do you stay impervious to all that?
KS: Between the Asia Cup and the World T20 there was confusion and uncertainty. When we went to the T20 there were issues. But everyone thought, "We've got so much support from the people. We're here trying to do something special, so why don't we concentrate on the 15 of us?" We've done that in the past. It's hard to explain how we do it, but it just happens. We are probably used to that system. It really motivates the players. The players are expected to prove themselves over and over again to an institution, where it should actually be the opposite - where the support and respect and love should be mutual.
It's a really strange position to be in, because I actually don't know what would happen if everything is hunky dory and we have nothing to fight about or argue about! We tend to be able to shut all that out. I don't know if it's because we've had that kind of upheaval for so long in the country and as a society we're used to getting on with life and getting the job done. We just have that knack.
MJ: The younger guys needed to do the same. When we left Sri Lanka, we said, "Forget about everything, you can't control it. The thing we can control is going out and playing our best cricket and enjoying that."
Sri Lanka have probably been the most consistent team in world tournaments over the last seven years. What's behind that?
MJ: When we lose a game, it hurts a lot. Then you know how bad it is and you don't want to have that feeling. Even when we play football to warm up, the losing team takes it really badly. I don't know how that had developed over a period of time, but that's a big factor.
KS: We're pushed from all sides to do better - fitness-wise, technically, performance, whatever. There's a constant push that can wear you down, but for some reason we're able to withstand that. We play a lot of cricket, domestically and internationally. We have no winter, we have no breaks, very little holidays. Our guys just seem to be able to soldier on. It would be interesting to find out why that is.
We've gone into World Cups with not a great record leading in, but suddenly we turn everything around to get to that crucial stage. I was reading a funny quip where a son asks the father: "Dad, what's a major ICC event?" And the father says, "It's a tournament where all the other countries play for the right to meet Sri Lanka in the final." Us doing well seems funny, but for being a small country with our resources - I've always wondered about it, why it's happening. Is it the island mentality? Is it the lifestyle we lead? Is it what we've had in the past? Is it our personality as Sri Lankans?
How did the feeling in the group evolve as the tournament went on?
MJ: When it came to a crunch game against New Zealand, I think that's when everything turned around. When we were pushed to the wall after our batting performance, we had to show some character. That's where everything turned.
KS: In the New Zealand game, we were probably 20 or 25 runs short. When Rangana came on, the openers were still batting and Martin Guptill got run out. The first three deliveries to Brendon [McCullum] were fantastic. Having the short leg, having him in two minds as to which way the ball was going. Two deliveries don't turn and he's worried about nicking behind too. He jumps out at the wrong delivery and tries to hit it the wrong way, and it turns and everything happens perfectly. Rod Tucker later said that Rangana bowled probably one of the most testing spells he's ever seen, where every ball looked like it could take a wicket. With a low total to defend, that was probably the toughest situation we were in in that whole tournament. That gave us the impetus.
Was there some extra trepidation because the final was against India, who have had the better of Sri Lanka in recent years?
KS: I think a lot of us expected South Africa to beat India, when we were speculating as to who we would meet in the final. And at the end of the day, I think everyone thought, "Who really cares?" We never expected to be here when we got out for 119 against New Zealand. But then we also knew India's out of India, which is a big advantage. They are in a different country. We also knew how sweet it would be to beat them in a final.
Sweeter than beating any other team?
KS: Probably, because we've been in a World Cup final against India and we've lost a few finals against India in the recent past. Being able to limit them to that total even though Virat Kohli batted brilliantly, and then to win that convincingly made it all the more sweet.
Kumar, you'd had a mediocre tournament before the final. What helped you turn it around for the big match?
KS: It was a case of ensuring that rather than trying to repair an innings with a partnership when we were two wickets down, I should just go in and try to dominate like I've done in one-dayers and other T20s in the last year and a half. If you lose another wicket, that's fine. My attitude in the previous games was just a bit cautious when I was thinking of not getting out and seeing the team through to a launching pad. That's not the way you should approach a T20. It's about batting freely.
I spent the previous night thinking about Ravindra Jadeja bowling around the wicket to me, but he bowled to me over the wicket. That freed me up to take him on over short square leg. In the semi-final, he was bowling around the wicket to JP Duminy and JP was trying to sweep him and missed a couple. But when he had that short square leg and that big gap bowling over the wicket, I knew that if I get outside the line, there was no risk. The six and the four in that over just gave me the momentum to continue.
There seemed to be a lot of emotion for both of you after the match. Had you thought about what it would be like to end your careers without tasting major tournament success?
MJ: I thought maybe that is something that won't be in my CV - winning a World Cup. We've said that out in the open as well. We don't have many chances, but we would love to have a World Cup under our belt. After the game it didn't really sink in. We were just celebrating. We didn't know how to celebrate even - the guys were throwing Pepsi and water bottles at each other and, you know, having fun in the dressing room. The emotions came to us after we came to Colombo. In ten or 20 years I can sit back and say I got one gold medal after so many silvers.
KS: (laughing) It had been playing on our mind. Not just about our own careers, but we'd thought, "Shit, four finals." I asked Maiya, "What the hell are we going to do if we lose another one?" And he jokingly said, "Maybe find a branch and throw a rope over it."
Did you know what you were in for when you landed in Sri Lanka?
KS: We didn't expect it to be that big - to have an unbroken line of people from the airport to Galle Face. The crowd at Galle Face was far larger than anything I'd seen. It was children, and Sri Lankans of all ethnicities. It seems trivial sometimes, because it's a game. Why would you love a game that much? But as Sri Lankans it's important to us. We're not fanatical about it. We love it as much as we sanely can. That really showed that day. It was raining, and no one cared. It was something I have never experienced and hopefully I might experience it once more in my life if things go to plan.
"The players are expected to prove themselves over and over again to an institution, where it should actually be the opposite - where the support and respect and love should be mutual"
Kumar Sangakkara
What was the feeling like for the younger guys who may not have experienced that sort of support because they've only been around for a while?
KS: It was uplifting for them as well, because we were all thinking, "So many people. Really?" It drives home to them as well that they've got to stay grounded, because that's where their support is. You're not above anyone. You're with the people, because those are the same people that come and watch you playing cricket, whether you win or lose at Khettarama or somewhere else. It hopefully brings home to them that whatever happens, your final duty as a cricketer is to the fans. You have to earn and also reciprocate that love and respect by doing the best you can on the field. You could see on the guys' faces how much they appreciated it.
When you see the effect something like this has on the country, does it change the way you see yourself as sportsmen?
KS: I think our job is pretty simple: Play as well as you can. Win as much as you can. But at the same time represent the people and the country with that passion and pride. If you do that, that support and love will always be there. I don't think they see the distinction between players on the field and supporters off the field. They live every moment. They play every ball with you, bowl every ball with you. And they have that real connection with the players. I think our roles haven't changed. The expectations people have of us haven't changed. There are times where cricket is more than a sport and our role in it is more than cricketers. If we can give back on the field and off the field as well, that's what we've got to do.
MJ: Even before this, throughout my career, the way Sri Lankan fans have treated us and helped us in our careers - you have to be very humble and say thank you. Just think about the way they respect us when we go out for a meal or out for a walk on the streets, or go to our grocery stores. They don't bother us, they let us live out normal lives. That's the kind of respect we have for them as well. It's something unique, and something we will always cherish.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here