It goes without saying that Sri Lankan cricket has had some fine names associated with it in recent years. Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan are just some of the key players to have donned the Sri Lankan jersey to great effect. However, it is easy to forget that the country’s history at the top level of cricket is shorter than most of its counterparts. Sri Lanka only gained full ICC membership, and the Test status that went along with it, in 1981. Though they participated in every single World Cup starting with the tournament’s inauguration in 1975, they won only 4 matches across their first 5 tournaments in what was on the whole a modest start to their inclusion among international cricket’s elite sides.
Everything changed, however, at the 1996 World Cup. The tournament was the first of its kind to be held partly on Sri Lankan soil (though co-hosts India and Pakistan shared the vast majority of games to be played), at a time of great political and social instability for the country, circumstances which unfortunately spilled over into the competition itself. Yet despite the woes of their country and the inexperience of their team, Sri Lanka produced one of the sport’s great fairytale moments when they took home the trophy against all the odds. With a positive brand of cricket that was years if not decades ahead of its time, the Sri Lankan class of 1996 turned well-respected cricketers into household names almost overnight. As they did so, they more than justified their presence among the great and the good of cricketing nations.
Build up to the ’96 World Cup
Before the tournament began, few would have pegged Sri Lanka as contenders for the title. Captain Arjuna Ranatunga had led the side for 8 years previously, during which time he had transformed the Sri Lankan team from international cricket’s outsiders into a solid if not world-beating side. They routinely appeared in Asia Cup finals, though under Ranatunga’s stewardship they failed to emerge victorious from any, and had recently won away Test series in New Zealand and Pakistan, demonstrating the progress they had made as a team.
Yet they were far from the finished article. Much of the Sri Lankan team was made up of evidently talented players who were coming up short of living up to their potential. Ranatunga’s consistent form with the bat aside, young players such as Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Muttiah Muralitharan had shown they were capable of putting in performances which were up there with cricket’s finest players, but appeared unable to do so on a regular basis. When compared to the Indian, Australian, Pakistani and South African teams in particular, who all seemed to be in with a good chance of winning the World Cup and who featured the best players the cricketing world had to offer, Sri Lanka’s chances certainly did not appear favourable.
Far graver, though, were Sri Lanka’s circumstances beyond cricket in 1996. The country had been rocked by serious terror attacks, the most severe of which, the Central Bank bombing in Colombo, took place less than 3 weeks before Sri Lanka were due to host their first ever World Cup match on home soil, against Australia in February. As a result of the attack, both Australia and the West Indies, whom the Sri Lankans were also scheduled to play in the tournament’s group stages, refused to take part in their World Cup matches in Sri Lanka, citing serious security concerns. With no obvious solution to be found to this impasse, Sri Lanka were awarded victory in both games by a walkover, without a ball being bowled in either. Though this meant their berth in the knockout stages of the tournament was confirmed before the competition even began, it also robbed a cricket-loving nation of the chance to watch their team take on two of the world’s best on the biggest stage cricket has to offer, to provide some respite from the country’s turmoil.
The Group Stage
After Australia did not contest what would have been Sri Lanka’s first game of the tournament, the hosts eventually got to play their first ever World Cup match at home against Zimbabwe a week after the competition began. In front of an adoring crowd at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, the Sri Lankans kicked off their World Cup in style with a comprehensive victory. After Zimbabwe won the toss and elected to bat, Sri Lanka immediately demonstrated one of the key credentials for any team hoping to be a World Cup contender: proficiency in the field. Early in the game, they effected the run-outs of Zimbabwe’s openers and key batsmen, Grant and Andy Flower, to give themselves a significant early advantage. They followed up these early breakthroughs with an efficient bowling performance, taking regular wickets as Alistair Campbell’s 75 was their opponents’ only significant source of resistance. Chaminda Vaas in particular shone with the ball, taking an economical 2 for 30 from his 10 overs.
Sri Lanka’s run chase of 229, however, started particularly poorly. Kaluwitharana was dismissed by Zimbabwean all-rounder Heath Streak for a golden duck, and Jayasuriya soon followed suit for just 6 runs, having been bowled by the same bowler. But here the home side showed a middle order strength that many had doubted. When Aravinda de Silva joined AP Gurusinha at the crease with the score at 23 for 2, they immediately took the fight to the bowlers, putting on an aggressive third-wicket partnership of 172. Though neither batsman quite made it to a century, with Gurusinha scoring 87 and de Silva 91 at over a run a ball, they essentially put the game to bed, with victory eventually coming with a more than comfortable 6 wickets and 13 overs to spare.
Sri Lanka’s following game was scheduled to be against the West Indies, but of course this match too had been forfeited, meaning that they had a 10-day wait before their next game against India. This delay could have gone either way for Sri Lanka, ensuring the side was well-rested and suitably prepared, or depriving them of essential match practice to keep their players in form. When they did finally get the chance to play, however, they showed no signs of rustiness, providing an emphatic stamp of authority on the tournament.
The Sri Lankans travelled to the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in the knowledge that the India side they faced was comfortably among the favourites to win the tournament. Sachin Tendulkar was in fine form, and ably supported by a capable batting line-up, while a talented bowling attack was spearheaded by Anil Kumble. Indeed, India, put in to bat by Sri Lanka, showcased their ability right from the outset. Though Manoj Prabakhar fell early, having been dismissed by Ravindra Pushpakumara, it was his opening partner Tendulkar who showed his class with a fine century. The Little Master batted out almost the entire innings before being run out in its dying embers having made a run-a-ball 137, with captain Mohammed Azharuddin supporting him with an unbeaten 72. The target of 272 they set Sri Lanka was commanding, but by no means unattainable.
Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana responded the only way they knew how – with a show of aggression. One of ODI cricket’s recent innovations at the time was the advent of fielding restrictions, which stipulated that only 2 fielders were allowed outside the 30-yard circle for the first 15 overs. The Sri Lankan openers took advantage of such rules to great effect, targeting the beginning of the innings as a time to score quickly and set a platform to build upon. On this occasion, they made a quickfire 53 opening stand, with Jayasuriya going on to make 79, setting their side ahead of the required run rate before the slower middle overs took hold. After a short wobble that saw them lose Gurusinha, Jayasuriya and de Silva in the space of 11 runs, Hashan Tillakaratne and Ranatunga steadied the ship. Without too much pressure on the scoring rate thanks to the openers’ blitz, they put together a measured partnership of 131 to guide Sri Lanka to an impressive 6-wicket victory. Winning against India in Delhi was of course no mean feat, and anyone who still held doubts about how far Sri Lanka could go in the tournament had them allayed beyond question.
Their final game of the group stages was against apparent minnows Kenya. Although Sri Lanka were already confirmed to have qualified for the quarter-finals as group winners, the Kenyans still had something to play for. Having stunned the West Indies earlier in the group stages, bowling them out for 93 to win by 73 runs, they retained an outside chance of sneaking into the fourth qualifying spot with a victory over Sri Lanka in Kandy. Yet the home side showed no mercy, unleashing an onslaught with the bat. A 115-ball 145 from de Silva was the standout performance, backed up by a brutal 75 from Ranatunga and 84 from Gurusinha, as they racked up a world record total of 398 for 5. Kenya responded with a spirited 254 for 7 in response, with talisman Steve Tikolo scoring 96, but they never looked like coming close to Sri Lanka’s colossal score. With the victory the hosts finished the group stages as the only unbeaten side in their group.
Quarter-final vs England, Faisalabad
Finishing top in Group A meant that Sri Lanka were matched up with England, Group B’s fourth-placed team. It would be fair to say that the English side were not on top form. They had lost 3 of their 5 games in the tournament, only sneaking into the next round on account of victories against outsiders Netherlands and the UAE. The contrast with a Sri Lankan side seemingly at the top of their game was stark, and as may have been expected, it was the latter who dominated from start to finish. Though England won the toss and chose to bat, their batsman never seemed settled, with Sri Lanka striking regularly before any substantial partnerships could be built. Jayasuriya, Muralitharan and Kumar Dharmasena each bowled effectively, claiming 2 wickets apiece. Only Phil DeFreitas stuck around for England, making an aggressive fifty before some late hitting from Dermot Reeve and Darren Gough pushed them beyond 200 to the middling total of 235 for 8.
The target was one other teams may have been wary of, but which the Sri Lankans swatted away without so much as an afterthought. Though they had an early scare when Kaluwitharana smashed his first two balls for four but fell to his third, his opening partner once again stole the show. Jayasuriya was in fierce form, hitting a rapid 82 from just 44 balls to push his side well ahead of the required run rate. Though when he was dismissed his team’s total was just 113, the runs had been made so quickly that the batsmen who followed him were under no pressure to score quickly. The middle order paced themselves, but still managed to see Sri Lanka home by 5 wickets with over 9 overs still remaining in the innings. Thanks in large part to Jayasuriya’s fine all-round performance, Sri Lanka had booked a berth in the semi-finals.
Semi-final vs India, Kolkata
Playing at Eden Gardens, with a capacity at that time of over 90,000, is a high-pressure environment for any player. When you are playing for a place in the final as the underdogs against a strong Indian team, that pressure is amplified several times. Given the circumstances it would be understandable for Sri Lanka to have been somewhat off their game. Early on, having been put in to bat by India, it appeared that this may have been the case. They lost the key figures of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana, so often their main point of attack, for a combined total of 1 run, before Gurusinha also fell for 1 as Indian paceman Javagal Srinath took 3 early wickets. Not for the first time, though, the Sri Lankans demonstrated the depth of their batting order. De Silva led the counter-attack, hitting 66 from 47 balls, succeeding where the openers had failed at taking advantage of the fielding restrictions. After he was dismissed by Kumble, Roshan Mahanama made a composed fifty, as Ranatunga, Tillakaratne and Vaas also made useful contributions to push their side to the solid total of 251 for 8.
As India began their run chase, the match seemed well in the balance. Yet Tendulkar, looking in fine touch as he opened the innings, threatened to take the game away from Sri Lanka with an assured 65 as India reached 98 for 1. But having not delivered with the bat, the Sri Lankan openers made amends for their disappointing match by combining for a key wicket. Jayasuriya darted a ball into Tendulkar’s pads, which ricocheted into the leg-side. Kaluwitharana behind the stumps showed lightning-quick reactions to pick up the ball and stump Tendulkar as the batsman overbalanced out of his crease. It was a key wicket, and it precipitated a huge Indian batting collapse. Jayasuriya picked up 2 further wickets as India fell from 98 for 1 to 120 for 8. It was fair to say that the India-supporting crowd was not happy. In response to their team’s poor effort, fans began to react angrily, setting fires in the stands and throwing projectiles onto the pitch. Out of concern for the safety of the players and other, match officials decided to call off the game, awarding Sri Lanka the victory given their dominant position in the match. Though the circumstances were unusual, nobody could argue that Sri Lanka did not deserve to their place in their first ever World Cup final.
Final vs Australia, Lahore
Sri Lanka’s opponents in the final, Australia, had also triumphed in their semi-final match thanks to a monumental opposition batting collapse. The West Indies had only needed 43 runs to overhaul Australia’s target of 208, with 8 wickets in hand, but had contrived to be dismissed 5 runs short of victory. So it was that the two teams met in Lahore, with Australia certainly the favourites. Sri Lanka, though, won the toss and elected to put Australia in to bat. Mark Taylor and Ricky Ponting helped Australia to a strong start, the former making an attacking 74 and the latter 45 before Sri Lanka struck back in the middle overs. Their spinners took 6 wickets between them, with de Silva the main threat with 3, to reduce Australia to 205 for 7, Some late hitting from Michael Bevan propelled them on to 241 for 7 in their 50 overs, but considering the way they began the innings Australia’s total would have been somewhat disappointing.
Sri Lanka’s response, however, also began poorly, as they lost both openers cheaply for the second match running. Jayasuriya was run out for 9 attempting a risky second run and being caught short of the crease. He was soon followed by Kaluwitharana, who skied one into the leg-side and was caught at midwicket. But the Sri Lankans had not come this far only to roll over in the final. Gurusinha and de Silva fought back, putting on a century partnership to keep their side in a good position. After Gurusinha was dismissed for a well-made 65, de Silva continued on with support from an aggressive-as-ever Ranatunga. He clipped a leg-side ball for four to bring up his century and bring Sri Lanka within 6 runs of victory, but it was Ranatunga who hit the winning runs, guiding a shot to the third man boundary with the scores level.
Their victory must rank as one of the greatest moments in the history of the tournament. To see such underdogs beat some of world cricket’s best sides to take home the trophy uplifted a nation in strife, while the aggressive approach they claimed victory with impressed the world, and prompted many to adopt similar tactics. In that sense, Sri Lanka’s famed victory had a transformative effect, changing the way the game was played worldwide and ensuring their own side would no longer be considered among international cricket’s outsiders. The Sri Lankans had arrived in cricket’s elite club.
Image Credit: Tristram Biggs