Starting as an associate nation then becoming a full-member and then snatching a world-cup triumph, Sri Lankan cricket came a full circle in the 1996 World Cup. In the first edition of the tournament in 1975, Sri Lanka and East Africa were invited as associate nations. In the next edition, they had to play a qualifying tournament.
Coming into the global cricket arena with little exposure in 1975, the Sri Lankans had to face the harsh realities of international cricket. Facing West Indies in those times was an uphill task even for a full-member team, unfortunately Sri Lanka had to go up against them in their debut World Cup match and the result was not joyous. However, against Australia in their 2nd match they seemed to be in a competitive position while chasing a target of 329 before Jeff Thompson brutally injured two of their batsmen. And in the third match against Pakistan also they were thumped, hence ending their first edition without a win.
Sri Lanka’s greatest triumph in its pre-Test era was recorded in the 1979 event when they won against a strong Indian team. That was the first instance of an associate nation beating a full member, a first upset in real terms. Since the beginning of the World Cup in 1975, Sri Lanka had played all the 5 editions. The 1996 tournament was the 6th edition. In those 5 editions Sri Lanka had played 25 matches with only 4 wins. Though they had an unconvincing record, Sri Lanka turned the tables to win it in 1996.
For the first time in World Cup history the matches were moved away from England. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were hosting for the first time. The tournament started off with a controversy as Australia and West Indies refused to send their teams to Sri Lanka because of the bombing in the capital city by the Tamil Tigers. Though the Sri Lankan government convinced the safety of the team and players both the teams weren’t ready to play. Hence, the ICC decided to award both the matches to Sri Lanka on forfeit, this also meant that they would qualify to the quarter-finals before the start of the tournament.
Sri Lanka eased past the other teams they played in the league matches. In the first match against Zimbabwe chasing a target of 229, they suffered an early blow as they lost both the openers under 25. The duo of Asanka Gurusinha and Aravinda de Silva resurrected their innings with a partnership of 172 runs and got them over the line without any hiccups. Later, against India they won chasing 272 and against Kenya they set a mammoth total of 398, which was one of the highest totals in World Cups till India broke the record in 2007. At the conclusion of the league stage, Sri Lanka were unbeaten in their five matches and were at the top of the table in Group A.
In the quarter-final, Sri Lanka were to face England in Pakistan. The English batsmen had no answer against the Lankan spinners as they stumbled while setting a target. Chasing an ordinary total of 236, the left-handed opener Sanath Jayasuriya set the stage ablaze with an entertaining 82 off just 44 balls. His knock took the pressure off the middle order batsmen helping them chase down the target with adroitness.
Next up it was India in the semi-final in Kolkata. The stage was set with a full crowd expecting the home side to repeat what they did in 1983. India won the toss and decided to chase, the decision seemed to be a good one as the Lankans lost their top three batsmen cheaply. The deputy in command Aravinda fought back with a quick-fire half-century alongside Roshan Mahanama who chose to play the anchor role, but Mahanama retired hurt on 58. The rest of the middle order made small contributions to help Sri Lanka post a target of over 250, which seemed to be a daunting one against the spin trio of Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Dharmasena and Jayasuriya. In reply the home side batsmen never looked comfortable apart from Sachin Tendulkar. The chase was alive till a moment of brilliance from Romesh Kaluwitharana saw the back of Tendulkar, and then on from 98/1 the hosts slid down to 120/8. Just as it was looking bleak for India, the crowd began to act violently at the Eden Gardens by throwing bottles onto the field. The players left the field for 20 minutes in an attempt to quieten the crowd. When the players returned, more bottles were thrown onto the field and fires were lit in the stands. Match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka, the first ever default win in a Test or ODI.
Facing up against the 1987 winners in the final, Sri Lanka fancied chasing after Arjuna Ranatunga called it right at the toss. It was certainly a brave decision that could have back-fired on the Lankan skipper as the teams batting first had won all the five previous finals. It was yet again the spinners that restricted Australia from scoring big, Aravinda led the attack with three wickets and other three spinners bagged one wicket each. Sri Lanka were chasing an average total of 242, but as it was a final that would have been a tricky one if they had miscalculated the chase. The openers couldn’t make an impact as both of them were dismissed for single digits and all the pressure was on the experienced pair of Gurusinha and Aravinda. The duo once more took Sri Lanka out of trouble with a 125-run partnership and gave serenity to the Lankan chase. With less than 100 runs required, Gurusinha was dismissed and the skipper joined his deputy and took Sri Lanka over the line to create history. Aravinda remained unbeaten on 107 which is till date the only century in a run chase in a World Cup final. His heroics with the ball as well fetched him the man of the match award. The match saw the first ever successful run chase in a World Cup final.
The triumph in 1996 has been Sri Lanka’s greatest achievement in sports. Explosive batting by Jayasuriya was complemented by the reliable Aravinda. After the 1996 victory, Sri Lanka became a cricketing powerhouse.