On Saturday, when Thilan Samaraweera dropped the first catch off of Eoin Morgan, no one probably thought of the famous Waugh-Gibbs exchange. Then Morgan was dropped again. Mathews shook his head in disbelief and the words sprung to your head. Did he just drop the World Cup? When Morgan was dropped for the third time, Murali's reaction said it all. It seemed like Sri Lanka did not just drop it, but packaged it and handed it to another team. If you were a Sri Lankan fan, watching at home or at R. Premadasa, you buried deep into your seat. Your stomach cringed. You closed your eyes and threw your hands in the air in a moment of despair. But only for a moment. The game was not over, and Angelo Mathews caught the fourth offering from Moragan. What came afterwards is history.
It will remain in history. In the next game, how Sri Lanka beat England will be irrelevant. The team knows it, the coach knows it. But when you have beaten a depleted, yet a very competitive side as well as Sri Lanka did on Saturday, and knowing that they have already beaten Kiwis once in the tournament, it is hard not to be complacent. Past records, in however way you dig them up, and the team form coupled with the home advantage will point to a comfortable victory for Sri Lanka. But the New Zealanders, Sri Lanka are facing on Monday is a different side from what they padded up against earlier. Since then Kiwis have beaten what was alluded by many as the most complete side, South Africa. New Zealand did it with passion, aggression and most importantly at the right time. South Africa might be chokers, but were not push overs. Kiwis are now brimming with confidence and already comparing weather in Mumbai to Colombo. Sri Lanka, beware, without a doubt this is the toughest game they are coming up against in this tournament.
Sri Lankans, however are introspective and mentally resilient. The Tharanga-Dilshan masterclass was the evidence. A relatively small target, lingering thoughts of dropped catches, night ghosts at Premadasa and playing against a buoyant English side could have made any team, any player second guess. But not Tharanga or Dilshan. They made the Kalu-Jayasuriya assault in 1996 look parochial. Back then, it was pure brutality and carnage. Fifteen years later, against the same opposition, it was more calculated, scripted and perfectly executed. This innings epitomized the evolution of Sri Lankan cricket. The maturity and the self belief openers showed highlighted the professional outfit Sri Lanka has become today.
It has not been an easy road, not for most players on and off the field. The team that won in 1996 had only three players from outside of Colombo. On Saturday, there were only four players from Colombo. Out of these four, Mendis was brought to prominence when he was playing for the Sri Lankan army, trying to provide for his family. From the rest, Tharanga watched tidal waves swept his house away with his equipment. Malinga was and still is a beach boy who loves to play soft ball cricket wearing flip flops. Murali's house was burnt down and lived to tell the tale. Herath, Silva and Dilshan, all coming from cricketing backwaters, perhaps had to take a crowded bus for many hours to Colombo to play club games. Not so long ago, the whole team was trapped in a bus ducking bullets. Every player, except for Murali and Sangakkara to a lesser extent, have spent time in the cricketing wilderness, trying to find their way back. Yet they shine at the world stage, at every opportunity they get and time has come to shine again. But it has not been an easy road.
Sri Lanka might lose to New Zealand, and it will break twenty million hearts. But there will be no flares at the ground or bottles hurled at the players. No effigies will burn. Because it is just a sport that you love to watch. Cricket has given every Sri Lankan a smile through their tears of joy or sorrow. On some days, catches will be dropped, matches will be lost. But cricket has made a nation proud. In victory or defeat drums will continue to beat to the rhythm of Sri Lankan cricket.