And yet again, Sri Lanka finds itself near the finish line of another major tournament. The 2013 Champions Trophy may have begun inauspiciously for Angelo Mathews’ men, with a wafer-thin loss to New Zealand but it has been a familiar tale of resurgence thereafter.
Nuwan Kulasekara’s stunning little assault and Kumar Sangakkara’s ton saw England off, while Mahela Jayawardena — a man for the big occasion if there ever was one — turned the tide over Australia.
And so, for the seventh time in 10, Sri Lanka finds itself in the knockout stages of a global competition. Come tournament time, the side assumes a somewhat different, persistent form; not that it is a bad one-day unit otherwise, but when the big prizes glitter, nobody makes a grab for them as hard or as hungrily as Sri Lanka. There has been disappointment, of course, without a single of those seven ventures ending in a trophy. But the attempt has been relentlessly strong.
India, whom it will face in Cardiff on Thursday, in contrast, has reached the semifinals or better of four global events in the last 10 but has won two of them. To Indian cricket fans, recollections of the 1996 World Cup may forever be scarred by images from the semifinal — of bottles on the turf, of seating on fire, and of a bawling Vinod Kambli.
In the story of Sri Lankan cricket, though, 1996 is the chapter that spawns a golden Part 2, the triumph that separates a side on the fringes from a global force in the sport. “The ‘96 guys changed the face of Sri Lankan cricket completely,” Jayawardena said back in 2007. “They paved the way for us. Those guys went through a lot of hardships, and we’re reaping the rewards for that.”
If that year Sri Lanka found heroes in Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva — whose half-century in the semifinal was followed by a forceful century and three wickets in the final — there have been similar stories down the years.
Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, bowlers Sri Lanka leant on for years, starred at the 2003 World Cup. Four years later, Lasith Malinga stormed into prominence, not to forget Jayawardena’s master-class at Sabina Park, a delightfully crafted 115. Sri Lanka may have fallen at the last hurdle in Mumbai in 2011, but in Jayawardena’s hundred, as polished a knock as a World Cup final will ever see, there will be some little solace.
The generation of Muralitharan, Vaas and Jayasuriya has passed but there have emerged new pillars in players like Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Malinga. Cricket has previously united Sri Lanka when it went through enough turmoil.
“We have come through a very tough period,” Sangakkara said ahead of the 2011 final. “A lot of people have laid down lives for our country. In this new future, hopefully we can take home the World Cup, and that will be even more occasion for celebration.”
Success at the T20 World Cup last October would have been balm on the cricketing wounds of a year ago, but Marlon Samuels inspired the West Indies to a win. “It hurts a lot, this loss, hurts as a player, as a cricketer and as an individual,” Jayawardena admitted. “I really cannot say why we lost all these (four) finals and they were all different situations. We have to put this behind us and move on. Yes, it hurts.”
And again, from the pain of defeat, contract wrangles and captaincy musical-chairs, Sri Lanka has recovered to reach the business end, the only way it knows.