Mumbai: Kumar Sangakkara has never been shy of attaching a higher significance to cricket. After winning the semi-final against New Zealand, which also ended their hosting involvement in the tournament, he said life in Sri Lanka seems normal when cricket is played. Before the final against India, he said in a similar vein, "It [winning the World Cup] means everything. We have come through a very tough period. A lot of people have laid down lives for our country. In this new future, hopefully we can take home the World Cup, and that will be even more occasion for celebration."
It is a beautiful thought, a sport healing the wounds of a nation, but it is also an unnecessary burden on a game. To Sangakkara and his team, though, bringing smiles to the faces of a beleaguered people is an obvious motivation. They don't seem to see it as extra pressure. Every Sri Lankan player carries a Sri Lankan flag with him, and the first thing they do when they reach a dressing room is to place those flags over their seats.
Sangakkara has led Sri Lanka during a tumultuous period for their cricket. His first assignment as captain was when the team was coming out of the shock of Lahore. In their first tournament back, they played an entertaining brand of cricket, and made it to the final of the World Twenty20 in England. Since then there have been unsubstantiated match-fixing claims, past players have not been subtle with their displeasure over the players' involvement with the IPL, there was controversy involving a senior player when the team went to Zimbabwe, there has been political pressure to keep playing players who were better off making way for youngsters, and of course Muttiah Muralitharan has slowly phased himself out. It has been tough to keep the team together, says a team source, but Sangakkara has managed to do that.
Sangakkara has also done it his way. He has managed to put together a team that has forged its own identity, one that plays its own brand of cricket. His side has been different from the 1996 side, and although it is an extension of Mahela Jayawardene's side, there is a Sangakkara stamp on it. Jayawardene still plays a significant part in where the team heads, but Sangakkara brings his own touch too.
He talks about the importance of not wanting to be some other team. "The inspiration has always been there since they [the 1996 team] won," Sangakkara said. "Everything that has come after is because that was a big factor. For us, 1996 is that particular year that belongs to that particular team. Since then there have been other teams trying to forge their own path and leave their own legacy for Sri Lankan cricket. Sri Lanka has kicked on from that, achieved great heights in cricket. A World Cup is a World Cup, be it 1996 or 2011."
Sangakkara, though not tactically as sharp as Jayawardene, has focused a lot on the fielding and the aggression. He doesn't mind gamesmanship, he doesn't preach. He does not get intimidated, nor does his side. He has tried to bring a bit of Australia to a talented side in order to make sure they win more. The side has responded too. Tillakaratne Dilshan and Lasith Malinga have been the cornerstones. Nor have they turned their backs on their traditional strengths. Sangakkara has strived for a delicate mix, where Thilan Samaraweera and Dilshan co-exist, and complement.
Sangakkara is also a man aware of the history and is conscious of the legacy that he leaves behind. He has been part of a side that has made a World Cup final, he has captained the side to a World Twenty20 final, and led it to a first ODI series win in Australia, but he knows legacies are not built on finals but on title wins. On Test wins in Australia, South Africa and India, for which they will hopefully get more chances in the new FTP. On World Cup wins, for which they have earned a second shot in a row.
"It's just the occasion. Use the occasion to lift yourselves," Sangakkara said. "World Cups bring out the best in players, sometimes the worst. I think, for us, tomorrow is going to be about controlled aggression. Not being too emotional about anything, trying to be clinical, trying to stay grounded, and in the moment. Take things as they come. You can plan and strategise as much as possible, but things can change out there in the middle. Be fluid, and do what we know we can do."
World Cups often bring closures to teams. There is a certain finality to the way they end. At the end of the World Cups, teams are reorganised with the next World Cup being part of the vision. Already many captains of vanquished sides have relinquished their positions. Tomorrow one captain will surely become one of his country's best ever. The runners-up will just be a honourable mention. Sangakkara and Jayawardene know that feeling from four years ago. They wouldn't want to experience it again.