It took a clinical, undefeated Sri Lankan outfit to go all the way and rightfully fill the few too many recent wounds of finishing second-best in a major tournament. Making it to six finals since 2007 (ICC World Cup 2007, Asia Cup 2008, World T20 2009, Asia Cup 2010, ICC World Cup 2011, World T20 2012), Sri Lanka have perhaps been an exceptionally consistent unit in World Cricket but that hasn't reflected in their trophy cabinet. Before Saturday's much-anticipated victory, Sri Lanka had won just one final (Asia Cup 2008) out of the six they've reached since 2007.
"We wanted to break the barrier between us and the final and I am glad we won in the end. It's a big victory for the entire team. We haven't won a major title for a long time," Angelo Mathews' words at the presentation ceremony probably echoed the thoughts of most people who've keenly followed Sri Lanka in the recent past. (Related: Match report | Match in pics | Match highlights)
The situation was familiar but there must have been a few nerves in the Sri Lankan camp. They were facing a side as unpredictable as the sport itself, blowing hot and cold at will. At the halfway stage, Lasith Malinga's heroics (five for 56) gave his team a few reasons to believe that a moment of glory was about to beckon. A run chase of 261 in an era when flat pitches allow teams to go far and beyond the 300-run mark with ease would have done a world of good to their confidence. Yet, they would have been aware of the weight of the situation, that failure would add to another good and yet unfulfilled performance in a big tournament.
A lot was riding on Lahiru Thirimanne's form as he walked out with the chance of finishing as the top run-getter of the series. His partner Kusal Perera took the opportunity to turn back the clock with shots that had his hero Sanath Jayasuriya's trademark all over. A stroke-filled, high flying start for the Lankans gave their dug out a reason to breathe easy. It was also one of those days when things weren't quite going Pakistan's way in the field. Nothing else could explain Sharjeel Khan's inability to judge the boundary line at deep mid-wicket while pouching the shot from Perera but stepping over to give away six runs.
It took two special deliveries from Saeed Ajmal to bring the Lankans crashing back to Earth. The Sri Lankan dug out probably skipped a heartbeat and spent a few uneasy moments as their seasoned pro Kumar Sangakkara walked back for a first-ball duck. The tension was back on, nails were back to being vigorously bitten.
Out walked Mahela Jayawardene. For a man woefully out of form, he couldn't have chosen a better day to be among the runs. He was faced with the stiff challenge of getting past the guile and trickery of an in-form Ajmal and he did so in a cautious and yet effective manner. With a modest total to chase, Jayawardene chose to bide his time and be extremely watchful of Ajmal's variations. It was a late cut - doused in elegance - that revived Jayawardene's magical touch with the bat. He began to breathe easy and play with a far better authority befitting of him. At the other end, Thirimanne joined an esteemed list consisting of Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Daryll Cullinan, Nick Knight, Paul Stirling, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen to score back-to-back centuries against Pakistan. In fact, Thirimanne went one step ahead of his idol Sangakkara, to score a century in a final, something that has eluded the latter in his 13-year-long ODI career so far across 27 finals.
Amid the pressure of a big final, the 24-year-old anchored his side like he was always meant for a role of this sort. Pakistan had no response to his run-a-ball knock as Sri Lanka were pacing themselves beautifully to take the contest away from Pakistan. It was like a chase from the previous decade, devoid of uncanny aggression and untimely risks. This chase from Sri Lanka summed up their performance in the tournament that had been near-perfect and almost blemishless.
The only blip perhaps, was their top-order collapse against Bangladesh before Angelo Mathews saved the day and took his side home. In the final, it was a heartening combination of Thirimanne and Jayawardene, of great promise and age-long reputation. A 156-run stand from the duo took Sri Lanka closer to glory. Even as Ajmal returned to ruffle a few feathers, it was too little too late. Angelo Mathews struck the winning runs and walked off as a happy captain as his side claimed their fifth Asia Cup title.
While winning their first major ICC event since 1996 will continue to be their biggest aim, their dominance in Asia has given them the chance to exorcise a few demons from the past and take momentum forward into the World T20 later this month.