As the Lankan lions arrived at the Premadasa Stadium, on the eve of their first major World Cup tie against continental challengers Pakistan, Lasith Malinga was the man in focus.
While the slinger put an end to all doubts about his recovery from a mild back strain that had prevented him from the taking the field in Sri Lanka's opening game against Canada on Sunday, there was one man who went about his usual business in the Lankan jersey.
After a routine warm-up, he took the ball in his hands and as he has done for the last three decades, almost two-third of which have been at the highest level of the game, kept on rolling his arm over and widening his eyes with a mischievous smile.
As much as this is the last World Cup hurrah for Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, it is the last international appearance for the most successful bowler international cricket has ever produced. No wonder then that the Sri Lankan team wants to bid a fitting farewell to Muttiah Muralitharan, the one man who has not just united the Lankan team but the nation as a whole.
"He is a special person, a legend. Everyone wants to make him proud and give him a very good send-off," middle order batsman Chamara Kapugedera said. "Everybody is doing his best to get the World Cup back home for Murali and Sri Lanka. If he wins the World Cup, it will be a great tribute to Murali."
Just like most of the sporting icons, as he has grown in experience and stature, his body has started feeling the heat. At a little over a month shy of turning 39, the off-spinner is not as effective as he was at his prime.
And it was evident on Friday when Sri Lanka vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene repeatedly danced down the wicket off Murali and sent the ball over the fence on the on-side. Despite being in the twilight of his career, as he displayed during his last Test against India in Galle last year, Murali still has it in him to test the best.
Still the tormentor
Naturally, having seen Murali run through the Pakistan line-up in no time, coach Waqar Younis was wary of the bowler's ability. Being a staunch professional, the former fast bowler did his best to put the great offie under pressure. "Look, if he has got wickets against us in the past, we have played very well against Murali recently in Sri Lanka," Waqar said. "I don1't think we should be too worried about Murali. After all, he is not 28 any more, so it's not going to be easy for him also."
If Murali can spin his web around one last time, Pakistan will find it hard to keep their clean slate against Sri Lanka in the World Cups.
Asian rivals but Cup strangers
Of the 22 cricketers who will take the field on Saturday in probably the biggest clash of the World Cup so far, more than half have been around the international scene for well over a decade. While three seniors - Shahid Afridi, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene - have featured in more than 300 ODIs, Kumar Sangakkara is fast approaching the milestone.
Yet, no member from both the squads has ever faced each other in a World Cup tie. Considering the volume of bilateral series between Sri Lanka and Pakistan it's indeed surprising that the Asian powerhouses haven't faced each other in a World Cup for four editions in a row.
After the last-over affair that Pakistan won in the group stages of the 1992 World Cup, both the teams were placed in different groups in the 1996 edition.
In the 1999 edition Sri Lanka exited in the preliminary stage. And in the next two editions, Pakistan did that.
If Sangakkara and his men deliver the goods, Sri Lanka's bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake and fielding coach Ruwan Kalpage, both of whom featured in their last Cup loss to Pakistan 19 years ago, will surely feel to have got the revenge over Aaqib Javed, who is now the Pakistan bowling coach.