17 March 1996 was a watershed moment for Sri Lankan cricket and judging by the goings-on since then, it may remain that way for a while. Quality Sri Lankan teams that were possibly better balanced than the 1996 side have tried to emulate that epic victory, only to reach the finals of subsequent Cricket World Cups without getting over the line – hence my initial observation.
The now famous World Cup victory by the aptly named ‘Arjuna and the boys’ will be remembered forever – for the manner in which the team responded to and overcame a multitude of hurdles. And skipper Arjuna Ranatunga deserves a bundle of credit for that.
As an individual player in the championship winning squad, Ranatunga may not have matched the feats of Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva and to some extent Asanka Gurusinha in the lead up to the big event and during it. However, the manner in which he moulded a winning unit out of a squad that was considered by many as happy and friendly losers was highly commendable.
At the time, the Sri Lankans were viewed as being a pleasant bunch of guys who despite being good cricketers didn’t display a hard-nosed attitude on the field. As a result of this, Sri Lanka had very little to show for good results – we were often second best.
What Ranatunga instilled into his team was a tough approach to the game. He convinced his team to stand on their feet without bowing to the opposition.
His handling of the ‘Murali affair’ (when Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled in 1995) and then refusing to shake hands with the Australians at the end of the finals of the Benson & Hedges World Series down under were among the decisions he took. They were actions that stood out and conveyed a strong message to the cricketing world, which made other teams grudgingly respect the Sri Lankans.
This no-nonsense approach on the field not only with opponents but also his teammates was the catalyst for Sri Lanka to turn the tables and win the ICC Cricket World Cup in 1996 – for the first and so far only time.
The buildup itself was a tough ask for Sri Lanka but like most champions, what the Sri Lankans did well was to turn a disadvantage into an advantage by way of hardening their approach to the game, and being as tough as nails following the acrimonious tour of Australia in late 1995 and early 1996, only weeks before the World Cup was played in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.
Besides, the fact that the West Indies and Australia refused to tour Sri Lanka, citing the civil war in the island at the time, turned out to be a blessing in disguise as their games were forfeited with Sri Lanka receiving full points.
Shane Warne’s oft quoted statement that shopping in Sri Lanka was dangerous because of the terrorist threat drew both interest and flak here at home but one has to concede that such scenarios did create an opportunity for the Sri Lankans in their quest for glory.
Surely, at no stage of the tournament could Sri Lanka have harboured thoughts of winning the World Cup although the legendary Sir Richard Hadlee had other ideas – the dark horses could go the distance, he said. Meanwhile, some members of the team and its management explained that the first task was to reach the semi-finals, which was one way of not carrying too much pressure onto the field.
As it turned out, the real contest began in the semi-final when Sri Lanka won a game that they were never in. The brilliance of the Romesh Kaluwitharana-Jayasuriya combination (they were known for their exploits at the top of the order) resulted in the stumping of the little master Sachin Tendulkar – this turned the tide and with it, the Indians were swept away in a tidal wave of enthusiasm and brilliant cricket by the Sri Lankans who never really took the foot off the enemy’s throat.
Cricket may appear to be decided on the field courtesy the dual between a bat and ball although in reality, many games are done and dusted before they begin because of mindsets, attitude and of course, momentum. When the Sri Lankans took on Australia in the final, it was payback time and an opportunity to avenge what they went through down under; it was a huge opening to prove Muralitharan’s innocence. After all, just about every Sri Lankan felt he was unfairly victimised in Australia.
One other reason in Sri Lanka’s favour was the trust in themselves, which they carried into the final. This was apparent when Ranatunga disregarded the advice of former Pakistan great Imran Khan – who led his country to victory in the previous World Cup in New Zealand and Australia, and went on to become his nation’s prime minister today – to bat first. Instead, Ranatunga stuck to the tried and tested plan of chasing when he won the toss.
This had so much to do with confidence, self-belief, boldness and above all the audacity to pay scant regard to the strengths or weaknesses of opponents. But one wonders whether in this day and age, some 23 years later, such strategies would work – although it certainly did back then.
Which is why so many of us strongly believe that the World Cup victory of 1996 was special and extraordinary – and in a sense, too good to be true. It was a perfect script that was expertly narrated and performed. The Sri Lankans had a set plan with a set group of players who made their World Cup success and how they set about getting there look like clockwork. It was perfect execution at the right time.
Winners often have many fathers and the Sri Lankans had some great men behind them. The then president of the cricket board Ana Punchihewa has to be commended for making a number of bold decisions including the hiring of coach Dav Whatmore and setting goals that were nonexistent until then. And the Sri Lankan squad’s manager Duleep Mendis along with skipper Ranatunga and vice-captain Aravinda de Silva plotted the team’s strategies – including the Jayasuriya-Kaluwitharana partnership that took the cricketing world by storm.
Sadly, I’m compelled to end not unlike how I began by reminiscing about the extreme pride and joy every Sri Lankan experienced on that eventful night of 17 March 1996 when Arjuna Ranatunga lifted the coveted world cup in front of a packed stadium in Lahore, and yearn for a similar achievement hopefully sooner rather than later.