The backdrop of the 1996 ODI Cricket World Cup had everything to motivate the Sri Lanka cricket team. However, only a few would have predicted the Lankans to end up rewriting cricket altogether.
Hosting the biggest cricketing extravaganza for the first time is reason enough for any team to perform out of their skin, but Sri Lanka were playing for something more - to change perceptions. After the Colombo blasts, Australia and West Indies had pulled out of their World Cup league stage games despite many persuasions; Sri Lanka only had to beat India, Zimbabwe and Kenya to reach the quarter-finals.
Hence, Arjuna Ranatunga's men weren’t only playing amidst political tension but also to protect their integrity in the 1996 World Cup. And their mission would be accomplished on March 9, 1996, way before they eventually lifted the title.
The Lankans were facing England in the first knockout game and had to chase an underwhelming target of 236 runs after the late heroics of England all-rounder Phil DeFreitas.
Interestingly, the Englishmen knew exactly what the Lankans would do. In their previous two matches against India and Kenya, Sri Lanka had targeted the first 15 overs to take the match away from their opponents.
In an era when teams looked to see off the new ball, save wickets and go all gung-ho in the last 15 overs, Sri Lanka had chosen to whack the hard ball out of shape in the first 15 overs and set up mammoth totals for their opponents. Against India, Sri Lanka had scored 117 runs in 15 overs to chase down 272 runs in 49 overs, while against Kenya, Ranatunga's men had scored 123 runs in the first 15 overs to set up a target of 398 runs in 50 overs, the highest ODI team score that remained until April 2006.
It wasn't a magic trick Sri Lanka had conserved just for the World Cup. They had tried it in a series against Australia, where Sanath Jayasuriya was seen going uber-offensive in the first 15 overs. However, he wasn't half as effective then as he was in the 1996 World Cup.
England had gambled by pairing left-arm spinner Richard Illingworth and Peter Martin to open the bowling, and it seemingly paid off when Romesh Kaluwitharana was dismissed for just 8 runs. But the early setback didn't dent Sri Lanka’s attitude.
Interestingly, Jayasuriya took a particular liking for Illingworth himself - the trump card of England. The fourth over saw Jayasuriya whacking the spinner for four boundaries as Illingworth conceded 17 runs. Once the aggressive southpaw was set on the crease, there was no turning back, and Faisalabad's crowd was in for a treat.
Veteran bowler Darren Gough was sent to the cleaners in only his second over, as he was hit for 15 runs. England's batting hero of the day - DeFreitas - conceded Jayasuriya's tenth boundary of the innings, which marked the fastest fifty (in 30 balls) in the World Cup then. However, the best part was yet to come.
DeFreitas’ second over saw Jayasuriya hitting him for six over long-on, slapping a four off the back foot, hitting the biggest six of the match over long-off that touched the pavilion roof and then a glorious flick for a boundary. The English all-rounder was just one run shy of equalling the costliest over (23 runs) in a World Cup.
At that time, murmurs of Jayasuriya breaking Kapil Dev's record of the fastest century in a World Cup (in 72 balls) were also heard. However, Jayasuriya was out stumped for 82 in 44 balls after hitting 13 boundaries and three sixes. Sri Lanka needed 123 runs in 41 overs thereafter, which ended as a cakewalk for them.
Such was the southpaw's dominance in that World Cup with the bat (214 runs), ball (6 wickets) and in the field (3 catches) that he was declared the Man of the Series even before the final was played between Australia and Sri Lanka.
While the Colombo blasts engulfed the start of the 1996 World Cup, the only explosion people remembered in the end was the one that came from Jayasuriya's bat.
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