Colombo awash with massive support for India

The local crowd showed one-sided support for the Indian team NurPhoto/Getty Images

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. So goes the ancient Sanskrit proverb that for Sri Lankan cricket fans has probably, during the better part of the last two decades, been exhaustively internalised when it comes to drawing allegiances in neutral contests involving India.

Exactly how that became the case though is unclear. Circa 1996 there was genuine camaraderie between the two sets of fans, and while certainly the antipathy between them has grown in recent times - no doubt accelerated by India's recent sporting superiority - there was always a sense over the years that Sri Lankan supporters took an undue amount of pleasure from India's failures.

As such, when Bangladesh eventually sit down to take notes on what went wrong in Sunday's dramatic and heart-wrenching final defeat to India, there is one moment in particular that they might come to rue. In the aftermath of that now-notorious disagreement over a no-ball, it was not just a dressing room door that was shattered, they had also lost any potential Sri Lankan home support.

As the teams took to the field, murmurs were heard of Sri Lankan fans - some 20,000 of them - turning up for the final in support of India.

"We don't expect the away crowd to support us. We were not focusing on that," a dismissive Shakib Al Hasan said after a game in which the partisan support was bordering on the surreal.

"It would have been nice if they had supported us but these things can happen. We were not worried about who was supporting whom. It was important for us to play some good cricket on the field."

While Shakib's take may well be an honest reflection on events, it fails to account for the impact such fervent support had on a fairly inexperienced Indian outfit. Buoyed by the 'home' support, India put in their best fielding display of tournament. The team threw themselves at every delivery, with even Suresh Raina, who had been guilty of several errors earlier in the tournament, seen racing towards the ball like a hare at a dog race.

"The crowd was brilliant, it was magnificent. We didn't feel that we were playing outside India," India captain Rohit Sharma said. He wasn't wrong.

As the match drew to its conclusion, the tension in the stadium was arguably at a higher plane than at any point during a game involving Sri Lanka this tournament. Every Indian piece of fielding, every wicket by an Indian bowler, every dot ball was cheered by a bouncing Khettarama stadium.

With the bat, Indian boundaries were willed across the ropes, while wickets were mourned with deathly silence. Even the stadium DJ was in on it, his loyalty clear for all to see, as he repeatedly failed to play music after a Bangladesh boundary.

"They came out in large numbers and their support was very crucial," Rohit said. "It is always good when you get that support, just to get you going, it is very important. They supported us throughout the course of 40 overs. Even when we were bowling and making those stops, and when we started off batting, they were there for us."

While it would be tempting to draw a line under this sudden shift in allegiance down to the mere dislike of Bangladesh, it's definitely something that has been rolling along unspoken in the background for a while now.

The upswing in relations might have begun on India's tour of Sri Lanka last year, where Virat Kohli's image underwent significant rehabilitation in the eyes of Sri Lankan fans. There was already begrudging respect for Kohli the cricketer on the field, but his numerous match-winning efforts against Sri Lanka had made him an easy villain.

However, with Kohli and his team-mates immersing themselves in the local culture on that tour - with a strong social media offensive to boot - that begrudging respect steadily began to evolve into a begrudging fondness. The sporting animosity was also thawing, as fans' acceptance of the dismal run Sri Lanka Cricket was going through allowed them to appreciate the quality of Indian cricket unabashed.

That journey eventually came to a head on Sunday night. When Dinesh Karthik scythed that final delivery for six, the release from the fans was one of unbridled ecstasy. Sri Lankan and Indian fans were seen in droves performing the now iconic nagin (cobra) dance, and embracing each other in kinship. Bonds were being formed; even Sri Lanka's most iconic supporter, Percy, was seen joining the Indian side on their lap of honour.

All the while firecrackers - reserved usually for Sri Lankan wins - were set outside the stadium and in the distance. As Hindi music blared in the background, Colombo was awash with the sounds of a once great friendship being rekindled.