Sri Lanka's awesome one-day record at home over the last five years has taken a beating. Worse, for the first time ever, Sri Lanka have failed to qualify for a tri-series final on home soil.

They came agonisingly close to making it - just nine runs - but the line between success and failure in sport is narrow. They failed.

Unlike at Sharjah, where they were handicapped by an unbalanced side and missed several key players, there are no easy reasons for their failure.

On paper the side was strong, experienced and well-balanced: six batsmen, two allrounders and three frontline bowlers.

But Sri Lanka lacked confidence. They thought failure first, success second. The thinking was betrayed by their actions.

The first indication came when a nervous top order failed to grasp a bonus point against New Zealand in their second game when they were chasing only 139.

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It was not as crucial as it could have been but it did prompt some navel-gazing in the dressing room - are we not good enough to chase 140 in 40 overs?

Sri Lanka had been ticking along after a solid start from Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, but a double strike by New Zealand changed the mindset.

Fear of failure stalled the innings, paralysing the middle order until Tillakaratne Dilshan was bold enough - and fortunate enough - to make a dash for victory.

Stephen Fleming couldn't believe his luck when he walked off with a bonus point. "For the second time in a week Sri Lanka have let us off the hook," he said, refering back to the final Test in Kandy.

Dilshan also impressed in the third match, Sri Lanka's best game of the tournament, top-scoring with 46 from 93 balls after having come to the crease with Sri Lanka on 48 for 4.

He was the major positive to come out from the tournament. Dilshan had always been a gutsy cricketer - unflinching close to the bat, safe hands under pressure - but doubts had persisted over his mental resilience with the bat.

But two years kicking his heels on the sidelines has toughened his inner core. If he can iron out a few technical kinks against fast bowling, Dilshan may be the middle-order batsman that Sri Lanka so desperately need.

Sri Lanka then held their nerve in the field against Pakistan, with Muttiah Muralitharan starring with the ball, taking 5 for 23.

Muralitharan
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But it all went awry against New Zealand from the time Atapattu had won the toss and decided to bowl first - the decision made no sense.

It would have been a brave decision to bat first, considering that everyone else had elected to bowl, but it suited Sri Lanka to do so considering that their strength lay in spin bowling.

The bone-dry pitch was always going to crumble after the curator, following a request from the Sri Lankan team, did not water it properly the night before.

Atapattu had intimated earlier that he was going to bat, but in the morning he hesitated. He said there was more moisture than had been expected.

He talked about Sri Lanka playing to their strengths, but what he meant was that Sri Lanka were playing to their fears - they were scared of handing New Zealand's fast bowlers an advantage early on.

If the batsmen had knuckled down to make a reasonable score, Muralitharan and Co would have been virtually unplayable on what Daniel Vettori called "a dirty Bunsen."

Vettori

In the end, Brendon McCullum took the match away from Sri Lanka, creaming 40 runs from the final four overs.

Chasing 157 for victory was never going to be easy. Mahela Jayawardene did well to take it to the last over. On another day his reverse-sweep - a justified gamble considering his restricted scoring options and the need to collect a boundary - would have sped to the boundary and taken Sri Lanka to the final.

The selectors - who have organised a three-match trial series before picking the squad for the West Indies - will now have to mull over potential changes to the line-up for that tour. Few changes are expected, for the problem was not personnel but approach.

Nevertheless, the sooner the selectors can clean up the ambiguity created by the spilt captaincy, and the cricket board can appoint a full-time coach, the better. Sri Lankan cricket needs someone to lead it forward. At the moment it's stuck at the crossroads.