|| AFP ||
Sri Lanka will make yet another attempt to end the "curse" of their only previous World Cup victory in next month's tournament, but go into it on the back of a humiliating defeat.
The Indian Ocean island nation were the surprise winners of the 1996 World Cup they co-hosted, but their only subsequent major tournament victory has been the 2014 T20 World Cup.
And many believe the victory 27 years ago -- they beat Australia by seven wickets in the final in Lahore -- itself sowed the seeds of decline.
"The 1996 win was a curse in disguise," Arjuna Ranatunga, who captained the winning team, told AFP.
"As money poured in after our win, we also saw corrupt individuals getting onto the board," he said. "That was the beginning of the end."
Cricket is by far the most popular sport on the island of 22 million people, but is plagued with allegations of match fixing and other graft involving both players and officials.
The country's own sports minister lamented in 2019 that the International Cricket Council ranked it among the most corrupt cricketing nations.
A law was brought in the same year making corruption in sport a criminal offence, but only one player has been prosecuted under it.
Sri Lanka's cricket board says it is willing to investigate any allegations and cooperate with local authorities and the ICC.
But secretary Mohan de Silva blamed players themselves for the team's plight.
"The lack of quality players coming through from school level -- the cradle of Sri Lanka's cricket -- is having a direct impact at senior level," he told AFP.
Top cricket commentator Daminda Wijesuriya of the mass-circulation Lankadeepa daily said the national team had suffered from political tampering.
"We are unable to maintain a long-term strategy and a clear vision," he said. "There is interference. Some players get political backing to secure places in the team."
The 1996 side had been in the making for four years, he said, but there had not been a long-term squad-building strategy in place for two decades.
"My fear is that we may end up being the whipping boys at this year's World Cup," he added.
"If we win four out of the nine matches, I will be happy. If we win seven or eight games and get to the semi-finals, it will be damn good. Winning the cup is a bonus."
- 'Absolute joke' -
For the first time, Sri Lanka this year had to go through the ignominy of the World Cup qualifying round, facing off against minnows like UAE, Oman and the Netherlands.
Eighth in the ODI rankings, they warmed up for the tournament proper in the worst possible way, with a 10-wicket humiliation at the hands of India in the Asia Cup final.
The thrashing on home soil -- which saw them all out for a mere 50 runs after choosing to bat first -- prompted scathing social media attacks on the board and its players, and demands for the sacking of Dasun Shanaka as captain.
"Perhaps it's time Sri Lanka moved on from Shanaka before the country ends up being an absolute joke in the World Cup," the Daily Mirror said.
But coach Chris Silverwood sought to portray the crushing defeat as a blessing in disguise.
"Sometimes a bit of a kick up the rear end is not the worst thing going into a World Cup," Silverwood told reporters.
"Maybe this is just a wake up call," he added. "Maybe there's something we can use out of this that can motivate us heading into that World Cup."