It has been said of the great West Indies cricketer Viv Richards that he should have quit the international game two years before he actually did. Richards, who made his debut in India in 1974, retired in 1991, after having been West Indies captain for about six years.
But after 1989, he was never the dominating batsman he had been over his entire career; his reflexes appeared to have slowed, and his temper sometimes got the better of him.
Something similar could be said about the three Sri Lankans — Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Kumar Sangakkara — who played their last game together on Wednesday, a loss to South Africa in a World Cup quarter-final. For Sangakkara it will be his last one-day game; Jayawardene has already quit Test and T20 cricket so this is his last international game.
Sangakkara is still part of the Test team, as is Dilshan. The latter has expressed a desire to keep playing for a few more years and it remains to be seen whether the crushing defeat by South Africa — by nine wickets, as the Proteas broke their duck in World Cup knockout matches — leads to a change of mind.
Not one could summon up a last-ditch match-winning innings, and in a way it was sad to see the trio collectively scores only 49 runs of which Sangakkara made a painful 45 off 96 balls, an innings totally out of character. Dilshan failed to get off the mark.
It is telling that the three went through the group games without much of a hiccup, with Sangakkara even setting a record by scoring four consecutive centuries. But then, the pressure in those games is a fraction of what it is in the knockout stages.
Both Sangakkara and Jayawardene have produced plenty of match-winning efforts for Sri Lanka over the years, and they even came good last year, taking Sri Lanka to triumph in the World T20. This year was a bridge too far.
When it comes to cricket, Sri Lanka is an unusual country. It has been playing international cricket for just 34 years, yet it has produced a relatively large number of players who have made an indelible impression on the game. Right from Sunil Wettimuny to Duleep Mendis, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu and Muthiah Muralidaran, there are plenty who have caught the popular imagination.
Given that, there will, undoubtedly, be good players who emerge from the system to emulate Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan. It would have been fitting to see a silken century from either Sangakkara or Jayawardene on Wednesday, or a more brutal effort from Dilshan, and a competitive end to what was expected to be the most fiercely contested of the quarter-finals. But in life as in cricket, the saddest words are “it could have been”.