But things have changed. Increasingly, anyone who underestimates them - in one-day cricket above all - is given a sharp nudge in the ribs. Just ask India, who were collared for 50 off four overs in their group match, and suffered an English-style batting collapse (7 for 22) in Tuesday's dramatic semi-final in Calcutta. Or Kenya, who went for 399 (a world record by miles) in Kandy. Or England, who were walloped by a batting performance of rare confidence and wit. They should have remembered Sanath Jayasuriya: on the tour of 1993 he took 6 for 29 against our boys.
The Sri Lankans have reached the World Cup final by playing two games fewer than everyone else, but no one assumes they would have lost them. After the most dismaying build-up to a tournament any cricket side can ever have had, the vigour and inventiveness of their game has won them admirers all over the place. In five games they have set a new standard in aggressive batting. Alone among the teams in this competition, they have played the new rules up to the hilt, and have showed that truly adventurous batting - not the slightly brisker-than-normal style most countries opt for - is perhaps not quite as risky as it looks. When it does go wrong, as it did when both openers slashed catches to third man in the first over against India, they have the composure and the breadth of talent to adjust. Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Aravinda de Silva, Asanka Gurusinha, Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillekeratne are not mere lucky sloggers: they are simply top batsmen who play like no one has ever quite tried to play before.
It is - depressing to recount - all part of a plan. The Sri Lankan Cricket Board has sponsored a noisy campaign to make their team "the best in the world" by the year 2000. This World Cup follows a successful tour of Pakistan and New Zealand (where they won both Tests and one-day games), a triumphant performance in the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah (where they beat Pakistan and the West Indies), and the character-building troubled tour of Australia. The World Cup is merely another staging post - but it is an emphatic sign that the plan is on schedule.
Their coach, the half Sri Lankan, half Australian Davenell Whatmore, is a manager in the modern mould - eager to enlist the active support of nutritionists, physiologists, psychologists, fitness analysts and so on - everything, in short, that England feel happy to do without. He insists, for instance, that the players swim every day to unstretch tired muscles. It is hardly a magic formula, but it is working: in the last few weeks they have beaten India (twice) and England with something like ease.
Best of all, they have a wildly enthusiastic cricketing population. There is not a great amount of money in Sri Lankan cricket. Unlike England, there is not a level of professional sport between club cricket and the international XI. But there is more than enough passion to go round: Sri Lanka are not a world power in many fields, and cricket carries the hopes of the nation. Somehow it manages to combine the vociferous eagerness of the sub-continent with hard-hitting tropical-beach cricketing virtuosity, reminsicent of the Caribbean.
Certainly, the island came to a halt on Tuesday, as the drama in Calcutta unfolded. The streets of Colombo were empty; markets were abandoned and restaurants idle. All the major companies placed adverts in the newspapers urging the team on, tour operators optimistically offered tours to Lahore for the final. By the time the Calcutta crowd started throwing bottles, Sri Lanka was already alive with fireworks.Reuse content