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Guest Column

Doubt did Sri Lanka in

They always believed they could get to the final, but that's where it seemed to end

Shanaka Amarasinghe
Sri Lanka need to start adding to their roster of match-winners, which currently does not extend far beyond Sangakkara and Jayawardene, now that Murali is gone  •  AFP

Sri Lanka need to start adding to their roster of match-winners, which currently does not extend far beyond Sangakkara and Jayawardene, now that Murali is gone  •  AFP

Sri Lanka is recovering. And recovering is something it has had to get used to in the last few years. Whether it's from the devastation of a tsunami, a three-decade civil war or surging costs of living, Sri Lanka has been a resilient nation. In this period of collective convalescence, though, they needed some hope. A second successive World Cup final provided it.
For the first time in they country's battle-scarred recent history Sri Lankans were able to congregate in public parks, watering holes and friends' houses to watch perhaps the most eagerly anticipated match in their cricket. Even more so than the unexpected triumph of 1996.
The quietness of Colombo and its suburbs on Sunday is antithetical to the buzz of Saturday afternoon. The disappointment is the sort felt by an enthusiastic child when his sandcastle is flattened by the tide. In the cold, dispassionate light of cricketing objectivity, Sri Lanka's on-field castle was built on sand.
If there is one word that can sum up the difference between the two finalists of 2011, it would have to be "belief". Sri Lanka always believed they were good enough to get there, but something about them on that Mumbai evening suggested that's where the buck would stop. The evidence would mount as the tale unfolded.
Despite his usual confident calm, there was a newly acquired grimace on Kumar Sangakkara's face as he spoke to Ravi Shastri after the shambolic toss fiasco. It was an expression likely brought on by the fact that he had lost his most important player on the eve of the final: Angelo Mathews is not Sri Lanka's best player or even their most talented, but his all-round ability has allowed Sri Lanka to be flexible in their combination, allowing for seven batsmen and five bowlers without needing 12 players. Mathews was the one player Sangakkara could not afford to lose, and fate conspired to see that he did.
After playing almost all their games before an adoring Sri Lankan public, and after witnessing the inspiration they gave after the Premadasa semi-final, moving into the cauldron of Mumbai must have been daunting. In the glaring headlights of the Indian cricketing establishment Sri Lanka blinked. And at this level, all it takes is one blink. Given the sense of entitlement of a billion people, the Lankan Lions could be excused for feeling like obligatory invitees to Tendulkar's party.
It was difficult to argue about pedigree, given that Sri Lanka had beaten the weaker minnows, a hapless England, and a scrapping New Zealand twice. India had beaten Bangladesh, West Indies, the stronger minnows, and tied a humdinger with England, while losing to South Africa in the final over. They had the harder path in the knockouts, accounting for both Pakistan and Australia. MS Dhoni, in an obvious effort to create self-doubt in the Sri Lanka camp, said, "We've been tested," implying that Sri Lanka hadn't.
The Sri Lankan selections reflected this self-doubt. They strengthened their batting in the guise of strengthening their bowling. The batting sides were mismatched, and if Sri Lanka were going to win, it would have to be with the ball. Nuwan Kulasekara and Thisara Perera were never going to threaten India. It was always one or the other. Not both. Rangana Herath and Dilhara Fernando would have been the bold decisions. But after you've blinked, boldness becomes impossible.
Having been in sumptuous form all tournament, Upul Tharanga was circumspect in the final, while Dilshan was tentative. The disproportionate respect for the Indian new-ball attack, including the comical Sreesanth, was obvious, and in the circumstances perhaps inevitable. Mahela Jayawardene's glorious hundred turned the game into a contest, and with Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag back in the pavilion, Indian jaws dropped. But so did Sri Lanka's attacking instinct.
Although they got back into the game briefly with Dilshan's catch of virat Kohli, Dhoni's confidence and determination dwarfed the combined cricketing nous of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Dhoni was bold - he promoted himself ahead of the Man of the Tournament, knowing he would be vilified if he failed. In the face of his onslaught Malinga faded away, while Murali barely entered the equation. Whatever may be said of their fielding performance, the fact was that Sri Lanka were two bowlers short on the day.
Sri Lanka have now lost two successive World Cup finals. One was taken away from them by the brilliance of Adam Gilchrist, who was part of arguably the greatest one-day unit ever assembled. The second was more attainable, and once the sentiment has faded questions must be asked as to what needs to be done to scale the final summit. Add to this loss the capitulation to Pakistan in the World Twenty20 of 2009 and a pattern begins to emerge. Sri Lanka have not won a major trophy since 1996.
While the Sri Lankan inability to go the distance is not nearly as serious as South Africa's, or the All Blacks' failure to reach a rugby World Cup final, it seems a trend worth arresting quickly. Given the off-field dramas of interim committees and ad hoc administration, the fact that Sri Lanka's players have performed so creditably is in itself testament to the national resilience. Successive finals are not something powerhouses like South Africa, or even India can boast of, and given the usual one-sidedness of World Cup finals, Sri Lanka have done well in this campaign.
This tournament also brought the Jaywardene-Sangakkara axis back to the fore. The turning point was the group game against New Zealand, where the two brought Sri Lanka to a defendable score and then put their heads together to demolish the Kiwis in the field. Jayawardene came out as a runner in the semi final and guided a young Mathews out of a spot of bother. In the final, Sri Lanka looked like potential world champions only when the two were at the crease.
With Murali's retirement Sri Lanka need to add to their stock of match-winners, while keeping their self-belief. The bowling had worked so well for them all tournament, and they chose to strengthen their batting. In the 2009 Twenty20 final a similar suicidal decision was made in the batting order. In the 2007 World Cup, having qualified for the knock-outs they chose to "rest" their big guns against Australia. These decisions exposed the diffidence of a team that, by all accounts, has no need to doubt themselves.
Yesterday Dhoni guided a bunch of hitherto underachieving superstars to world dominance. Sangakkara and Jayawardene - for there are no heirs apparent, yet - must follow his lead. If defeats are the pillars of success, then Sri Lanka must start constructing their castle on the rock. While their consistency since 1996 has been enviable, they must now begin their journey to a third consecutive final and beyond.

Shanaka Amarasinghe is a writer and radio presenter in Colombo