London: I can say with a degree of confidence that there will never be a final quite as peculiar as the one we witnessed at the Premadasa on Sunday.
West Indies were an embarrassment for the first quarter of the match, not worthy of their status as finalists, hopelessly groping against spin and medium pace alike, squeezing out 32 painful runs from 10 overs for the loss of Johnson Charles and Chris Gayle.
Then something happened. Dwayne Bravo hit a six off Akila Dananjaya. Maybe the West Indies we know and love had turned up for the match after all. Maybe they weren’t 11 clones who had forgotten the fundamentals of cricket.
But it was only when Lasith Malinga served up three juicy half-volleys in a single over to Marlon Samuels that the match turned into something resembling a competitive sporting fixture.
Even at this stage, one could hardly imagine that hours after the game we would sit around debating Mahela Jayawardene’s bowling changes, but the decision to give Malinga two more overs after that little mauling was a poor one. Samuels hit two further sixes off poor old Malinga and with a little help from Darren Sammy at the end pushed West Indies up to 137-6.
Not enough, surely not enough: who really thought Sri Lanka would fail to coast home? With the reservoirs of patience, nous, wristy skill and cold experience that Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were able to provide, common sense suggested this would be a straightforward chase.
What West Indies had was a score on the board, something that Sri Lanka had to get past. It was only five runs less than the Australian women had managed, and that had been good enough – even against England’s Sarah Taylor and Charlotte Edwards.
But West Indies had to bowl and field like they had never done before, and they did just that – like they had in the Champions Trophy final in a freezing cold London in 2004. On that occasion, they had used a succession of nagging seam-and-swing bowlers in damp conditions to restrict England. Now they beat Sri Lanka at their own game, bowling them out inside 19 overs with specialist and part-time spinners.
Sangakkara and Jayawardene laid a platform, but unforgivably both got out either side of a horrible bit of cricket from Angelo Mathews, presenting his stumps to Sammy as he moved across too far and getting bowled.
The main Sri Lankan weakness for some time has been the lower middle order and it was cruelly exposed – batsmen running each other out in blind panic or succumbing to the wiles of the wonderful Sunil Narine, a bowler made for pitches like this.
West Indies’ domination was so total from the 10th-over dismissal of Sangakkara that the result wasn’t really in doubt towards the finish. An astonishing triumph, and it all came down ultimately to that game-changing innings from Samuels – 56 balls, six sixes, three fours and 78 of the most priceless runs ever.
Let’s not get carried away too much. On cricinfo they liberally compared it to VVS Laxman’s epic 281 in the 2001 Kolkata Test. Er, steady on, chaps!
Still, Samuels is a cricketer who has known some difficult times. He spent two years out of the game when a lingering investigation into an illegal bookmaking racket found the Jamaican with his hand in the cookie jar at the wrong time. When he came back, he appeared to have lost his love for the game; his shots lacked the power and precision we remembered – his innings seemed to be unnaturally choked, uncomfortably restrained.
The selectors refused to give up on Samuels and he finally became the confident player of old on a Test tour of England earlier this year with three fifties and a century in the space of five innings. At 31, this naturally gifted cricketer is finally beginning to fulfil his enviable potential.
But what of Sri Lanka? I thought they’d win this quite comfortably, even without the initial West Indies go-slow. This should have been the much-needed flagship success for the post-1996 generation – a demonstration that Muralitharan, Jayasuriya and co had passed on their skills to a new batch of champions.
Alas not. They must rid themselves of the reputation that they panic in major finals, and they could probably do with unearthing two or three really good young players in the next year or so. If not, they might start to really regret missing out on all these chances.