Twenty-four-years ago, when the hype for the 12-nation 1996 World Cup extravaganza came around, many a skeptic hardly gave a chance for Sri Lanka to win the title, or for that matter most partisan supporters felt much the same. This was based on the island cricketers’ dismal record based on the earlier results in the [...]


When Sri Lanka beat the world for the first time


Twenty-four-years ago, when the hype for the 12-nation 1996 World Cup extravaganza came around, many a skeptic hardly gave a chance for Sri Lanka to win the title, or for that matter most partisan supporters felt much the same. This was based on the island cricketers’ dismal record based on the earlier results in the World Cup. After all, in the World Cup tournaments played since the first staged in 1975, Sri Lanka had lost the most number of World Cup games by any side – 20 from 26 encounters. In 1975, Sri Lanka was placed fourth in Group B, in 1979 third in Group B, 1983 it was fourth in Group A, in 1987, back in the same position in Group B, and finally, in 1992, ended one but the last! In short, our cricketers were bringing up the rear consistently!

Those games were played at the Oval – or now known as the P. Sara Oval. There was an apocryphal story doing the rounds that the thugs in the area used to control the fans who could not afford to buy a ticket to enter the ground. They permitted fans to climb trees outside the ground by charging each fan Rs.1/- but Rs.2/- to come down!

With such a pathetic history, one would have thought that all, except the die-hard supporters, would place their money on Sri Lanka winning the title of world champions. Surprisingly it seemed a few knowledgeable observers did. John Woodcock, British cricket writer since 1954 for the prestigious ‘Times’ of London, editor of the Wisden Cricketers Almanack (1980-86) and had ‘covered’ more than 400 Test matches, had this to say in a preview of the World Cup, for the Indian  magazine ‘Sportstar’ of 10 February 1996. Some excerpts:

“….Much to the benefit of the event, the World Cup has never been more open than it is this time. The days are gone when West Indies could take victory for granted and Sri Lanka merely made up the numbers. I have a particularly soft spot for Sri Lanka, going back to the landfalls which England teams used to make on their way to Australia. These lasted until 1962……..great fun it was……Ceylon had yet to become Sri Lanka, and the visit of an England team, or an Australian team bound for England, was cause enough for a public holiday and for all roads to lead to the cricket…….we were always struck by the charm and deftness of the batsmen of Ceylon and the wristiness of their spinners. Now, as members of cricket’s first division they can be a match for anyone.”

Contributing to the same issue of the ‘Sportstar’ magazine – quite independently of course – this writer had to say much the same:

“Sri Lanka will certainly add sparkle to the 12-nation World Cup extravaganza……..not anymore are the island cricketers mere cannon fodder or making up the numbers for a limited-overs bash. The Sri Lankans, after their performances, especially in the abbreviated version of the game, against New Zealand and Pakistan in Sharjah, and finally in the Benson & Hedges triangular series in Australia have arrived at last….True, Sri Lanka lost to Australia 0-2 on the WSC finals but most seasoned observers felt that had the interpretations of the Australian umpires been more consistent the result may have gone the other way…… the Sri Lankans have come on a lot. So much so, they are a threat now to any team in the world…..judging from current trends there is no doubt that Sri Lanka will be one of the contenders for the Wills World Cup.”

Well so it finally proved! The Sri Lankans, won all their games, demolishing all opposition with consummate ease and trounced the high-riding Australians by 7 wickets with 20 balls to spare to emerge champions. Of course, the fact that Australia and the West Indies forfeited their games – citing security fears – enabled Sri Lanka gained 4 points even without stepping on to the field, and the fact that playing in the sub-continent with conditions that our players were accustomed, naturally, was a bonus.

Thirty-two-year old Arjuna Ranatunga, having played in Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test 18 years ago as an 18-year old schoolboy, with a tad over 200 ODIs under his belt and having led the country in 101 of them, was one of the most experienced campaigners in the international circuit. As a street-fighter and an accomplished expert on ‘pitch-craft’ one could not find a better, save (say) Javed Miandad of Pakistan.

An explosive opening pair in Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana to blast off was part of plan A, and though the former performed his duties to the extent that he was adjudged the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, Kaluwitharana failed, aggregating a mere 73 runs (average of 12.2 runs) with a highest score of 33 runs – against Kenya when Sri Lanka registered a World Cup record – at that time – total of 398/5. Then plan B was to come into play. The galaxy of Aravinda de Silva backed by the left-hand trio of Asanka Gurusinha, Hashan Tillekeratne and Arjuna Ranatunga, along with right-handed Roshan Mahanama could bolster the batting. Importantly, this quintet was each averaging over 90 ODIs, experience that was worth its weight in platinum to conduct a successful campaign of this magnitude. In this regard, coach Dav Whatmore, too was one of the masterminds of this strategy.

The first encounter was against Zimbabwe at the SSC grounds, after having ‘pocketed’ 2 points against Australia who failed to turn up. Having restricted the visitors to a modest 228 runs, the Sri Lankans had a poor start losing both openers ‘Kalu’ (0) and Jayasuriya (5). Then came Plan B. Aravinda de Silva (91) and Asanka Gurusinha (87) set the ground ablaze with a dazzling partnership of 172 runs in 27 overs. Man of the Match, de Silva’s innings was then the highest score by a Sri Lankan in a World Cup innings – which record he was to break twice over in the tournament – and Gurusinha’s knock was embellished with six sixes equaling the previous feats of Viv Richards and Kapil Dev.

Next scheduled fixture was against the West Indies at the R.Premadasa stadium, and again, Sri Lanka was awarded 2 points since the opposing side (Australia) did not turn up. Now, the hosts had 6 points in the kitty after having played only one game!

Next, the Sri Lankans had to travel to Delhi to meet India in what was going to be the first fixture to test the Sri Lankan mettle. Sent into bat after winning the toss, India, on the back of a Tendulkar century, posted a formidable total of 271/3. In reply, openers Jayasuriya (79 in 76 balls) and ‘Kalu’ (26 with 6 fours) plundered 42 in the first 3 overs – shell-shocked Prabakhar being smashed for 33 runs in two overs! – as the Sri Lankans raced to 50 in five overs. However, a minor middle-order collapse slowed down the progress with 3 wickets (Jayasuriya, de Silva & Gurusinha) falling in the space of 12 runs but skipper Ranatunga (46*) and Hashan Tillekeratne (70*) in a stand of 131 runs helped coast home with 8 balls to spare. Plan B to the fore!

Coming back to Sri Lanka, Kenya – who had made a stunning win over the more fancied West Indies a week earlier – was next on line. However, any hopes of upsetting the Sri Lankans were soon put to rest. Sent in to take first lease of the placid Asgiriya wicket, the hosts registered a total of 398/5, the world’s highest score for all ODIs with Aravinda de Silva (145 in 115 balls), registering the maiden World Cup century by a Sri Lankan and the highest score by a Sri Lankan in an ODI. Skipper Ranatunga was even faster scoring a belligerent unbeaten 75 in 40 balls, reaching his 50 in 29 balls another World Cup record while the partnership of 184 in 182 balls between Gurusinha (84) and de Silva was Sri Lanka’s highest for any wicket. In reply, the Kenyans made 254/7 resulting in a facile 144-run win for the hosts.

So ended the preliminary round of Group A with Sri Lanka comfortably on top with 5 wins in 5 games and a net-run rate of 1.60  -  way ahead of second placed Australia.

Now came the quarter-finals clash, against England at Faisalabad. Sri Lanka’s glorious run continued. Batting first England scored 235/8, and has never been knocked out before reaching semi-finals in the 5 previous World Cups. This time however, they were in for a rude shock. Sri Lanka lost ‘Kalu’(8) with the total at 12. Then the fireworks began. Joined by Gurusinha (45), Jayasuriya (82 in 44 balls) unleashed a savage attack on the shell-shocked England bowlers, as Sri Lanka reached port for the loss of only 5 wickets and, more importantly, with 56 balls to spare!  Jayasuriya was named the Man of the Match.

The semi-final day/night clash against India at Calcutta was going to be the acid test for the Sri Lankans.

In front of a boisterous crowd Indian crowd of 100,000, Sri Lanka was sent in to bat. A sensational start heralded the innings. Both openers, ‘Kalu’(0) and Jayasuriya (1) were back in the hutch within the first 4 balls of the first over bowled by Srinath. Gurusinha (1) soon followed. Sri Lanka was tottering when Aravinda de Silva (66 in 47 balls with 14 fours) played a sublime innings amidst the ruins, an innings most opined as fit to be considered one of the best-ever innings in any form of cricket. Supported by Mahanama (58), Ranatunga (35) and Tillekeratne (32), the Sri Lankans recovered to 251/8. The Indians, bolstered by Tendulkar (65) advanced confidently. However with his exit at 98/1 India crumbled. 7 wickets tumbled for 22 runs, and at 120/8 the stunned Indian crowd began hurling bottles and other missiles on to the field resulting in suspension of the game. Despite valiant efforts by match referee Clive Lloyd and other officials the game could not be re-started. Eventually the match was awarded to Sri Lanka. Indeed it was the third match of the 1996 World Cup that was awarded to Sri Lanka! Though Aravinda de Silva was named Man of the Match, a day later Jayasuriya was named Most Valued Player of the Tournament. Now the jubilant Sri Lankans had reached the finals to be played 4 days later at Lahore.

The clash for the title between Australia and Sri Lanka was the first day/night international game to be played in Pakistan. Winning the toss, Ranatunga sent the Australians in to bat, a move many thought as suicidal since on no previous occasion has a side in a World Cup final had won after batting second. Australia began confidently. Skipper Mark Taylor (74) and Ponting (45) took the score along to 137/1 by the 27th over when the former was dismissed. Four overs later Ponting was dismissed and then the Sri Lankan spinners strangled the Australian batting. In fact, for 25 overs ending in the 49th, there was only one boundary stroke – a pulled six by Stuart Law – as the Australian innings closed at 241/7.

The Sri Lankans started disastrously losing ‘Kalu’ (6) and Jayasuriya (9) with the scoreboard reading 23/2. But, the islanders always had Plan B in store. Gurusinha (65) and the ubiquitous Aravinda de Silva, first with the ball (3/42) and now with the bat – his second century (107*) in the tournament and the third by any player in a World Cup final – put on 125 runs for the third wicket. After the departure of Gurusinha, skipper Ranatunga (47*) played a dazzling cameo innings with deft flicks and cleverly placed strokes to put the issue beyond doubt as Sri Lanka reached the target with 22 balls to spare in front of a delirious, Sri Lankan flag- waving, partisan 24,000 strong crowd comprising mainly of Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Sri Lankans.

Aravinda de Silva was adjudged Man of the Match for the third time, and coincidentally Sanath Jayasuriya too won this award thrice in the tournament of the six matches played by the Sri Lankans in the entire tournament.

The worm had turned. After being at the bottom of the heap, before the 1996 World Cup began the Sri Lankans reached the pinnacle of limited-overs cricket in the world – and as the saying goes “the Sri Lankan cup of joy “runneth over”!

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