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Countdown to WC '07: Treasure island

Defying odds and snubs, the Lankans won the crown in 1996. Aravinda de Silva narrates a champion’s tale.

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Sadly, for a lot of people, particularly Indians, the 1996 World Cup is probably best remembered for our chaotic semifinal against India at the Eden Gardens.

I admit that Indian fans must have felt devastated at the way things ended, so the anger was perhaps justified. However, we were in the final, and at that point, we were not thinking of much else, though the guys felt sorry for the Indian players.

But let me not get ahead of the script. Going into the tournament, we were relative underdogs, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because there was no pressure on us whatsoever.

You will know what I mean when I say that we considered it a huge achievement in itself to have even reached the semi-finals, forget the final.

We opened against Zimbabwe at Colombo, and posted a comfortable six-wicket win. However, this was our opening match by default. The actual opener was supposed to have been played against Australia at Colombo again, but the political situation prompted Australia and the West Indies to stay away from Sri Lanka, on which I will have more to say later.

Anyhow, we then met India in New Delhi, and it was a fairly high-scoring affair. Sachin Tendulkar with a brilliant 137 and Mohammed Azharuddin with 70 were the major contributors to India's 271, which we overhauled with six wickets in hand thanks to Sanath (76 off 79 deliveries), Arjuna (46) and Hashan (70).

When we travelled back to Sri Lanka for our last group match, against Kenya at Kandy, we could see how, thanks to the first World Cup on Sri Lankan soil, cricket was rapidly growing in stature. And that made the absence of Australia and the West Indies all the more unfortunate for the fans.

Thankfully, PILCOM organised a Sri Lanka vs Rest of Asia match at the last minute, and we were very grateful to the other Asian players for showing the world that the situation in Sri Lanka was not as bad as it was made out to be.

And that was the reason why, when the crowd erupted at Eden, we felt truly sorry for the Indian team. They had shown solidarity in our hour of need, and it felt bad to see them in such a situation.

We topped the group owing to the points awarded to us from the forfeited West Indies and Australia matches, and before the quarterfinal against England, I remember telling Arjuna that if we won it, we could actually go all the way.

And we won it in style, thanks mainly to an incredible innings from Sanath, who tore into the English attack so ferociously (82 off 44 balls) that they were virtually stunned into submission.

Using Sanath and Romesh (Kaluwitharana) at the top of the order was a deliberate tactic on our part, and they had a clear brief: as utility players, they had to maximise the first 15 overs.

Obviously, the kind of batting that we saw from Sanath against England cannot be seen every day, and we were prepared for the odd poor start as well.

But with a middle order that had Asanka Gurusinha, me, Arjuna, Hashan Tillakaratne and Roshan Mahanama, we were fairly confident of recovering well from those starts as well. The final was a great opportunity for the team, mainly the seniors, to banish a few ghosts from the past.

Sri Lankan cricket had come through some pretty difficult times, and I for one was growing increasingly determined to see the whole thing through.
It helped that the opponents were Australia. Their refusal to play in Sri Lanka still rankled, but it was mainly our Australian tour of 1995 that had given us the motivation to defeat the Aussies, or die trying.

As you probably remember, it was in Australia in 1995 that Murali was first called for a suspect action, and the unpleasantness of that tour had brought the team closer together.

Australia got off to a good start at Lahore, and had progressed from 36 for 1 to 137 for 2 before I got Mark Taylor's wicket. I had been thinking up bowling ideas for myself from the very start of the match, and received excellent support and suggestions from the other seniors. The three wickets that I eventually bagged ought to be credited to them more than to me.

Chasing down Australia's modest 241, we were in trouble at 23 for 2. But I felt dead calm inside, which always happened to me whenever I was determined and confident. I have learnt to never panic in difficult situations, and I thank God for the luck that I had on that March day in Lahore.

Besides, I was in good form, and absolutely hell-bent on beating Australia. My partnerships with Asanka and Arjuna were studies in contrast. I always adapted my batting style to suit my partners, so with Asanka, I hit out more, while with Arjuna, I concentrated on rotating the strike.

At the end of the match, inside the dressing room, the first thing we did was pray. And then we partied for two days. I remember having to fly out to Australia with Sanath and Chaminda for a World XI match, not having slept at all for two days, and playing that match. It was only on the flight back home that we managed some rest.

It was among the highest points of my career, and I think we won the trophy that year because everyone knew what he had to do. The bowlers, batsmen and fielders had their work cut out, and we stuck to our roles.

It is, of course, gratifying to be honoured as the man who helped his team win the World Cup, but it is small recompense for what the team has given me.

First Published: Feb 23, 2007 04:01 IST