Cricket World Rewind: #OnThisDay - When Sri Lanka truly arrived at the world stage
March 17, 1996 - The Arjuna Ranatunga-led Sri Lankan team was not fancied at the 1996 ODI World Cup, but they took the tournament by storm, finishing the campaign unbeaten with a seven-wicket victory against Australia in the final.
In the first five editions of the tournament, Sri Lanka’s record wasn’t too convincing, winning just four games after 26 matches. Hence, when the team, as one of the co-hosts, entered the 1996 ODI World Cup, they did not have many backers.
The sixth edition of the World Cup was being hosted by the island nation along with India and Pakistan. However, the tournament had its fair share of controversy; the biggest of which was sparked when Australia and West Indies refused to play their games in Sri Lanka, citing security concerns.
Both countries refused to travel, thereby resulting in Sri Lanka winning those matches by forfeit. The Arjuna Ranatunga-led side beat Zimbabwe and India by 6 wickets before brushing aside Kenya by 144 runs. The team had struck gold in the opening combination of Player of the Tournament Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, who changed the game as it was played then.
In those days, the teams generally preferred to see off the new ball by playing cautiously in the powerplay and then accelerating. The pair of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana turned this tactic on its head by going after the bowlers early on and taking full toll of the field restrictions. It was on the back of this charge by the openers that Sri Lanka went on to score a record total of 398 in the 144-run win over Kenya in their last group game.
In the first quarter final, Jayasuriya walloped England's bowlers for 82 off 44 balls to take the team to a comfortable five-wicket win. This was the first time in history when England were knocked out of the competition before the semis.
Next up were India in the semi-final clash, who came into the encounter confident after beating arch-rivals Pakistan in an emotionally-charged quarter-final. As it turned out, Sri Lanka won the semi-final by default, but only because the game had to be called off.
After Aravinda de Silva and Roshan Mahanama struck half-centuries and Jayasuriya picked up a three-fer to leave India tottering at 120 for 8 from 98 for 1 in pursuit of 252, a section of hostile fans threw bottles onto the outfield and set seats on fire, making it impossible for the players to continue.
They met Australia, who were coming off a five-run win against a strong West Indies in the semis, in the final frontier. The Aussies went into the game as slight favourites but were comfortably beaten in the end. Chasing 242, Sri Lanka lost Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana early on but didn't panic.
Aravinda de Silva scored an untroubled 107 not out, to go along with his three wickets and two catches - and was named the Player of the Match. Fittingly, Ranatunga hit the winning runs as Sri Lanka truly arrived at the world stage with a seven-wicket win with 22 balls to spare.
Although the cricketing nation is not in its best shape at the moment, after the triumph of 1996, the Sri Lankans have reached the finals twice in 2007 and 2011 and won the ICC World Twenty20 2014. Their performance in ODI World Cups from 1996 onwards has been quite impressive - 36 wins out of 57 games.
The best of Sri Lankan cricket is yet to come. March 17, 1996 was the day it all started.
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