Monday, March 17, 2014

Sri Lanka's Victory in 1996 Cricket World Cup

It was a night of several ironies and coincidences. As Arjuna Ranatunga played his trademark late cut to guide the ball to the third man boundary, Tony Greig, the converted supporter of Sri Lanka’s cricket, couldn’t hide his joy. “That’s it. All the way, to the boundary for four; what a victory for the Sri Lankans….” he announced to the entire world. He was spot on. What a victory for the Sri Lankans it was.

Sri Lanka’s World Cup victory in 1996 is an unmatched achievement in her sporting annals. It was unbelievable. Who in their right mind would have imagined Sri Lanka winning the World Cup in 1996?The sweet irony of the whole story is the Australian contribution to Sri Lanka’s victory. In 1995, just before the World Cup, Sri Lanka had the rare fortune of touring Australia. It was the time when the Sri Lankan team was reaching its peak performances in years. They had already recorded their first test victory on foreign soil and had also done well in several limited over tournaments. Therefore, Sri Lanka became a prime target for Australian ‘psychological warfare.’ To the disappointment of the Aussies, they had met their match in the form of Arjuna Ranatunga.

In January 2013, almost all members of the world cup winning team took part in an exhibition T20 match between 1996 World Cup Champion team and the Sri Lanka Cricket Legends team. Once again, Ranatunga's 'boys' won the game. (Rukshan Abeywansha)
When the ‘no-ball’ allegations were brought against Muttiah Muralitharan, Ranatunga rallied his team for the defence of his ace spinner, and the whole nation followed him. With the whole team and the nation united against the ‘common opposition,’ Sri Lanka became even a stronger threat than she used to be. All divisions evaporated in the face of this blatant challenge to an upcoming star.

Sri Lankan cricket team was not doing well initially in the Benson and Hedges World Series during this tour. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Desperate for a new strategy, the Sri Lankan team asked Romesh Kaluvitharana to open batting with Sanath Jayasuriya and sent Roshan Mahanama down the order. This surprise move proved to be a masterstroke of strategy. The duo Sanath (“master blaster”) and Kalu (“the little dynamite”) entirely transformed one day cricket. What they initiated in Australia came to a zenith during the World Cup a few weeks later. In doing so, they won many admirers, among them Tony Greig. Meanwhile, Mahanama, who was struggling at the top order, found his form back and gave added stability to the middle order.

With the attack on Murali unsuccessful, Australia launched another campaign to smear Sri Lanka’s reputation. Citing security reasons, Australia and West Indies refused to come to Sri Lanka to compete with the local team during the preliminary round in the World cup. The Central bank bombing helped them to press the issue. But the Indian and Pakistani authorities came to Sri Lanka’s assistance, sending a joint team to play an exhibition match to prove that the Australian allegations were baseless. This was a rare case of South Asian solidarity, in the face of a “common opponent.”

Pakistan had a grudge against the Australians. In 1994, when their team was in top form, it was three Australian players who brought allegations of match fixing against the then Pakistani captain, Saleem Malik. This ended the team’s good fortunes for a few years to come. In this way, Australia may have helped the Sri Lankan cause. If Pakistan had kept on their good form, they had a very good chance of repeating their success of 1992, especially as the tournament was being played in the subcontinent.

After cruising along the first round, thrashing the mighty Indians and the hapless Kenyans on the way, Sri Lanka pulled out a spectacular victory in the first Semi Final against India at Eden Gardens. After losing both the opening pair and Asanka Gurusinghe cheaply, they found a hero in Aravinda De Silva. He played some elegant boundaries and faced up to the challenge as if his team had lost no wickets. Ranatunga and Mahanama steered the middle order once again. Under the lights, Indians started well, but after Tendulkar was dismissed, things turned upside down. Jayasuriya, who failed with the bat, was making amends with the ball and in the field as he captured three wickets for twelve and took two catches. This performance earned him the Most Valuable Player award for the tournament even before the final.

Ironically, the second Semi Final was to be played between the two teams who had refused to come to Sri Lanka for the first round matches. As the Australian captain remarked, the West Indians won 95 percent of the match but lost it in the end. Therefore, Sri Lanka was destined to play their ‘arch enemy’ in the final at Lahore.

This match must have been the only major instance when the Pakistanis packed into a cricket stadium to support another team. Sri Lankans must have never felt that they were playing in foreign soil. The images of those supporters, carrying Sri Lankan flags and cheering the players on was a once in a life time experience. If the opposition was not Australia, this support would not have been this intense. By getting selected to the final the Aussies had ensured total crowd support to Sri Lanka. They had lost half the match even before it got underway.

They lost the other half when Aravinda De Silva joined the solid Gurusinghe in the Sri Lankan reply to Australia’s 241/7. The explosive opening pair had been sent back to the pavilion very early in the innings but Gurusinghe and De Silva had no plans of following their example soon. They built a steady partnership. Dew started falling, which made fielding a very hard endeavour. All bowlers, including Shane Warne, were given the same treatment. After Gurusinghe’s dismissal the captain came to the middle and guided his team to victory with his deputy. De Silva scored a memorable century and Ranatunga scored the winning runs. This was the culmination of a difficult voyage which started abruptly on Boxing Day 1995, when an Australian umpire called Murali for chucking. With their “psychological warfare” against both Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Australians gave unintended assistance to Sri Lanka to lift the World Cup in 1996.

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