Last year, during the World T20 in Bangladesh, the Sri Lankan team was desperate to give the most perfect send-off from Twenty20 International to Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, two former skippers and two of the brightest jewels in Sri Lanka’s cricketing crown. That dream was realised when Lasith Malinga lifted the trophy following the conquest of India in the title round.
Jayawardene and Sangakkara have already announced that this World Cup will be their 50-over international swansong. At the end of Sri Lanka’s World Cup campaign, whenever that is, Jayawardene will forever be lost to international cricket, while Sangakkara will play on for a few more months, till the end of the home series against India in July-August.
Sri Lanka aren’t talking about winning it for Mahela and Sanga yet, but it’s something they have discussed a fair few times, Angelo Mathews, the captain, revealed. A day before Wednesday’s (March 18) quarterfinal against South Africa, Sri Lanka’s captain said: “We will look to try to make this tournament a historic one for them. They’ve been performing really well. Mahela also got a brilliant hundred against Afghanistan, and since then, he hasn’t had the opportunity to have a good knock. Kumar has been brilliant. I’m sure Mahela is a big match player and the top four has to score runs for us to be in contention and to get a big one. Hopefully, we can make it a historic one, winning tomorrow and go into the semis, hopefully to the finals and win there and make it historic for the two legends.”
Over the years, and particularly since 2007, Sri Lanka have discovered the key to winning the knockout matches in big tournaments. “As a team, we shouldn’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We just have to approach it positively and aggressively, just as we did in the first-round games,” said Mathews. “When you come to the knockout stages, most of the teams will think that you can’t afford to make mistakes or you’ll be out of the tournament. That kind of attitude is hard to get rid of. We have to play good cricket, back ourselves and go out there and enjoy ourselves.
“Both teams will be nervous, for sure,” he laughed when reminded of South Africa’s no-win record in do-or-die games at the World Cup. “We all know that South Africans are a very hard team to beat, especially in this tournament. They’ve come out really hard and they have a good, balanced team. History, it’s history. You can’t really take anything from it. You’ve got to move on and look forward to the games that you play. Statistics, I don’t really bother about. We have to go out there and perform well to beat the South Africans.”
Sangakkara is the leading run-getter in the tournament on the back of four straight hundreds. AB de Villiers, South Africa’s captain, has been in rip-roaring form and smashed a spectacular unbeaten 162 off 66 balls at the same venue against West Indies earlier in this competition. “They’re absolute legends of the game,” Mathews stated the obvious. “Kumar has been brilliant in the past four games for us, and hopefully he can get one more tomorrow. Kumar is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. He’s the first one to get into the nets and the last to get out of the nets. AB, we all know that he’s such a destructive player. We need to try to get rid of him as early as we can or else we’ll be in trouble. When he gets going, it’s really hard to stop him.”
Like South Africa, Sri Lanka too have played at the SCG before, going down in a high-scoring game against Australia. “It turned a little bit, but not as expected in the Australian game,” pointed out Mathews. “We all know it’s a very good wicket for batting, so there will be plenty of runs scored. I don’t think the toss will be decisive. I hope not. Generally, the wickets have been extremely good, we’ve seen teams chasing 300 as well. If a team bats first and if they get to the 300-mark, the game is not yet over.”
One of the other things Sri Lanka can rely upon at the SCG is plenty of support from Sri Lanka’s loyal band of colourful fans. “If you play at the MCG or the SCG, it’s like playing at home,” grinned Mathews. “Most of the Sri Lankans across Australia or across the world, they fly into Sydney with immense support for us, and we really enjoy playing in Sydney. We’ve been getting tremendous support wherever we’ve played. In New Zealand and in Australia, and Australia especially, it’s like a home game. It’s such a wonderful atmosphere. We invite all the Sri Lankans across Australia to come to Sydney, fill up those stands and make sure the support is tremendous. We look forward to playing in front of a large crowd.”