Sri Lanka are keen to delay  Sangakkara and Jayawardene's farewell. © Getty Images

Sri Lanka are keen to delay Sangakkara and Jayawardene's farewell. © Getty Images

It’s come down to this now; 12 days, 7 games and 3 victories stand between eight teams and the label of World Cup winners. After a prolonged period of foreplay that involved 42 games, cricket’s pinnacle event has reached the business end, as it were. This is the point of no return, there are no more second chances, no further opportunity to right a wrong. This is when you either shape up, or ship out.

Sri Lanka have been here many times in the past. More often than not, they have surmounted this hurdle, an obstacle that can make nervy boys out of solid men. South Africa have been here, too, many times in the past. They have been nothing but the nervy boys, gripped by stage fright, laid low by the magnitude of the occasion, the importance of the contest.

The free-spirited islanders from the Asian subcontinent, fortified by the steel that Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene bring in such statesmanlike fashion, against the method of the strongest African cricket-playing nation, bolstered by a flair that is increasingly becoming a significant component of their wheel. It is a classic showdown between Sri Lanka’s sinewy grace and South Africa’s grim determination. The World Cup couldn’t have asked for a better game than Wednesday’s (March 18) first quarterfinal at the beautiful setting that the SCG ground provides to kick off the knockout stage.

These are matches that sometimes turn on individual brilliance, on one burst of inspiration, on one slice of luck, on one unexpected moment of madness. Mostly though, these are matches that are determined more by sustained phases of collective effort, some individuals shining more brightly than the others but everyone still shining, never mind the lux.

Normally, given their all-round depth, South Africa should have the edge. They have lost just once in four World Cup clashes to Sri Lanka, that in 1992 in their first foray into the competition, and they have arguably the best batsman and the best bowler in world cricket. But there is nothing normal when it comes to South Africa and the World Cup.

AB de Villiers has promised his team won’t choke on the morrow, but previous South African captains have made similar utterances with the same conviction and yet been left holding their heads in despair. Four losses in five knockout games in the World Cup – the other was a tie – can’t be a coincidence. South Africa have found the knockout game a bridge too far, their winless streak as inexplicable as polar bears in Sri Lanka.

This time around, South Africa have adopted a different tack – less analysis, less cluttering of the mind, less talk and chatter going into the game, indeed less practice and top-up on match eve. So they took the day off from training on Tuesday; they met up for a team dinner Monday night, went out and about with families and kids on Tuesday morning, the cricket kits left behind in their dressing room at the SCG to gather a little bit of dust. It’s an unusual approach – ‘Really?’ MS Dhoni might ask – but South Africa know what they are doing. Whether it will bear fruit, only time will tell.

Skill has never been a South African problem, and it isn’t this time around, either. In Hashim Amla and de Villiers, they have two of the most influential one-day batsmen in history, while Dale Steyn, still to hit top gear, is among the top exponents of swing bowling. Imran Tahir provides both versatility and penetration in the middle overs, and neither the rest of the batting group, Quinton de Kock’s iffy form notwithstanding, nor the rest of the bowling pack is a liability. As ever, South Africa wear the look of a champion side. But as history will testify, looks can be and often are deceptive.

But not in Sri Lanka’s case. The tiny nation has thrown up some of the true giants of the game, and Angelo Mathews is fortunate enough to have at least four such giants under his command.

Sangakkara is the man of the tournament so far, four hundreds in a row and all that, Tillakaratne Dilshan is batting beautifully, Jayawardene has hardly got a hit and Lasith Malinga is peaking quite beautifully. The support cast, especially in the bowling, isn’t quite as intimidating, which is why Sri Lanka tried to give Rangana Herath every opportunity to declare himself fit and available.

Herath gingerly bowled less than half a dozen deliveries at nets on Tuesday afternoon, then put on his track top and retired to the tent. Moments later, news trickled in that he was ruled out of the contest. A body blow to Sri Lanka. The choice of the specialist spin option now boils down to between Seekkuge Prasanna, the leggie, and Sachithra Senanayake, offspinner with a remodelled action.

Unlike South Africa, Sri Lanka have mastered the art of maximising their skills on the big stage, in the big game. Sangakkara and Jayawardene are not just two outstanding batsmen, they are also great students of the game, excellent motivators and natural man-managers. The value of the positivity and energy they spread around the dressing room just can’t be quantified. The youngsters in the camp are in the wonderful position of being able to pick their brains in matters technical and mental, and the two legends are more than happy to share their experience and expertise in their ODI hurrah.

Should Sri Lanka lose on Wednesday, it will mean the end of Jayawardene’s international career, and the end of Sangakkara’s ODI career. It’s not something that is lost on the team; they don’t want these two heroes to fade away into the sunset, and while it is too early to think of a triumphant send-off after the March 29 final, the aim is to play well enough on Wednesday to at least give themselves a chance of getting to that final at the MCG.

Form, momentum, statistics, history – they are all good pointers of what is, not what will be. And none of this will count for anything at all when it comes to the crunch. The toss might, especially if Mathews wins it and Sri Lanka post something in the region of 280. The crowd might, what with a majority of a full house expected to be colourful, fun-loving, singing and dancing Sri Lankan fans with the papare playing in the background. The skills most certainly will. And as much as anything, the mind will, too.

Teams (from):
South Africa: Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock (wk), Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers (capt), David Miller, Rilee Rossouw, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir, Farhaan Behardien, Kyle Abbott, Aaron Phangiso, Wayne Parnell.

Sri Lanka: Tillakaratne Dilshan, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Mahela Jayawardene, Angelo Mathews (capt), Kusal Perera, Thisara Perera, Seekkuge Prasanna, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga, Dushmantha Chameera, Upul Tharanga, Sachithra Senanayake, Suranga Lakmal.