In real life nothing comes on a platter generally. Yet if you are ready to work hard and set up your own goals and go for it, maybe you can climb high. Still when the pinnacle is within sight, forces beyond your control and your tested skill takes your dream away, it converts into an episode of irony.
To the surprise of some, but not to the players, the Lankans reached the final of the World Cup Cricket Tournament in the West Indies in 2007. This is the story of the travails and victories of the then Lankan skipper Mahela Jayawardena in World Cup cricket leading to the 2007 final and his feelings about the whole episode.
Mahela began at the point where it all started in World Cup Cricket. He said “Every World Cup has been different to me. My first one in 1999 was a huge learning curve. I was a part of a team that had a lot of experience. I was the baby of the team.”He said that playing in different conditions was tough for the team and the early English summer added to their woes. Besides, something that he learned later was that the Lankan side was not totally prepared for that World Cup. He added, “We should have done better. It’s a big thing, a big stage and you should be mentally focused in what you are trying to do”.
Then Mahela moved onto the 2003 effort. He said personally it was not a good World Cup for him. He was modest enough to add “I felt that I was over ambitious and I completely lost the plot. I just could not get back to the rhythm and I did not have the confidence either”. Yet, he said the team enjoyed a good tournament and played good cricket to reach the semi-finals. Mahela also added that it was very unfortunate that Sri Lanka did not win their semi-final against Australia. “It was a great opportunity when we had Australia down for 208 at Port Elizabeth, South Africa and the wicket suited us, but we just collapsed. We had enough batting, but we just did not get the job done”.
The former Lankan skipper then moved on to the tournament in question, the tournament where Sri Lanka reached a World Cup final for the second time in their short cricket history in the big league.
“Captaining the 2007 World Cup for me was unexpected. One and a half years leading up to that it was Marvan Atapattu who was captaining the side. I was asked to captain when he was injured, then all of a sudden the selectors wanted me to continue. It was bit of an awkward situation; I honestly believed that Marvan had built a team. Obviously always a captain gets his options and he introduces new players etc. Actually he is the one who had groomed the team leading up to that World Cup. It was tough for me to take over. I told the selectors really that it was Marvan who should be the captain. Obviously they had different ideas. At the same time Marvan was in and out of the side because of his injury, running up to the World Cup.
“It helped me because it was unexpected and we were going into the World Cup and I was still learning the tricks of the trade in captaincy”.
Mahela said he then prepared the side to go from game to game. At the same time according to Mahela, coach Tom Moody was a tower of strength and had taken control of the entire situation by doing the research and getting the Lankan combinations right. “We selected a squad that we had a minimum of three different combinations, according to the different oppositions. We had four players who had won the World Cup. They were the key figures. Sanath, Murali, Vaas and Marvan, then for us – Kumar and myself, the captain and vice captain -- we had to hold the balance together.”
From the very start things started going right for the Lankan team which did well in the warm up games also. “Yet we had to make a tough call regarding Marvan, at the beginning itself. Tom and I discussed the situation and we were upfront with Marvan. We initially tried him opening the batting. At that time he wasn’t in great form. We always knew that he had the experience to come out of that. Upul (Tharanga) and Sanath had a great combination going with Upul getting a hundred in the warm up game against New Zealand. Then in the middle order Chamara Silva was batting really well. At that particular moment we did not want to tilt the balance by making too many changes in a lineup that had a lot of confidence. Every one had a role to play and we always knew that Marvan could bat anywhere in that lineup and we could bring him in if we needed him. We made a very tough call up front and went ahead with it”.
Going with that combination Sri Lanka began to win matches. They started by beating India and Bangladesh and moving into the super six. Talking about the players, he said “Lasith (Malinga) came out with a very aggressive attitude in that tournament. That gave us a lot of momentum. Vaas was steady as usual and Murali and Vaas carried the bowling for the Lankans in that tournament. Then the rest of the players chipped in and whenever there was a need they put their hands up. It was a very collective group effort.”
The Lankans played simple in that tournament. They had set small goals – “We did not think too far ahead. We tried to win one game at a time and we set different goals too. First was to get through the first round. Then to get into the last four – that is the semi-finals. After the semis we were in the final. The entire effort was fantastic and the entire team enjoyed it.”
Then the Sunday Times Sports took time to ask the then skipper how did the final work out for the Lankan team. Mahela said, “We had a very positive mindset going into the final. Once again we had four guys who had been in a final and won it. They advised us on how to approach the final. The main thing for us was to take it just as another game. That is how we played the entire tournament. We did not change our approach and went for it.”
Mahela said that with the rains coming in they knew that it was going to be a shorter game.
“The Australian opener Adam Gilchrist took this as an advantage – once the game got shorter he could free himself. Then a guy who had not scored a single fifty in that entire tournament ended up scoring 130. Good players like that could take the game away from you any time.”
Still Sri Lanka had a chance – Mahela was always under that impression. When Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya were batting Sri Lanka were 130 for 1 going really well. He added, “Then unfortunately the light began to fade. We knew it was a bad situation, where we were 20 runs behind the Duckworth-Lewis target. We were compelled to take a few chances and when we took them we lost wickets.”
The Sunday Times Sports then asked Mahela – had the game gone for two days as projected at one point of the game if Sri Lanka could have made it. He said, “That is what compelled the ICC to make those changes after that World Cup --the rules that the whole tournament was played. Initially the rules that we played read – you try and finish the game the first day itself. Only if you cannot complete a game in the first day, the provisions for a second were made, like the minimum of twenty overs not played. Now they have decided that they won’t even start the game unless you are totally playing the fifty overs. Then even if you start a game on the first day after three-four hours you still start the game as a fifty over match and if needed it will go into the second day. In that particular tournament the rules said try and finish the game in one day.
Then when you start calculating the overs backwards with the time, the umpires will not take into account when it would get dark. They would play to that official time that is set.
“In that game by 5.30 it got really dark, and they had calculated the match to go on till 6.15, which was ridiculous. Obviously quite a few people learned a lot of new things, being a World Cup final”.
The final question from the Sunday Times Sports was – If the game went on even keel where the light was concerned could Sri Lanka had a better chance of winning? Mahela’s answer came in this manner: “Yes, if the light was good and if we had an opportunity to play all those thirty-seven overs, we could have given a much better account of ourselves, than what we really did at the end of the game where we lost seven wickets for 150 or 160 runs.
On even keel we would have had the opportunity to do better as our run rate was pretty good even through we were behind in the Duckworth-Lewis. But, we had wickets in hand and we could have planned out without throwing the wickets away the way we did.
“That is the only sadness I have. We worked hard for four years and going into a World Cup, we went through a great campaign and got into the final. We wanted to play a proper World Cup final. That is what I wrote in my match report as well and the ICC acknowledged that and after that the ICC Cricket committee decided to change all those rules and make sure a proper final is played. Unfortunately we failed to experience that. Besides that we had a wonderful World Cup.”