World Cup 1996: Unfancied Sri Lanka's greatest sporting achievement

The triumph in 1996 is Sri Lanka’s greatest achievement in sports. No one had given it a chance to win the cricket World Cup, but Arjuna Ranatunga’s side took the world by storm.

Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga receiving the Wills World Cup from Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on March 17, 1996.   -  V. V. Krishnan

Sri Lanka has a pretty decent record in cricket World Cups. Although the island became a full member of the International Cricket Council only in 1981, it has played all 11 editions of the World Cup. Out of the 76 World Cup games it has played, Sri Lanka has won 37.

For the inaugural edition, Sri Lanka was invited along with East Africa. But four years later, it had to play a qualifying tournament. The Anura Tennekoon side qualified by winning the ICC Trophy, played just before the World Cup.

Coming into the global cricket arena with little exposure in 1975, the Sri Lankans had to face the harsh realities of international cricket. Its first ever One-Day International was against West Indies and it was blown away for 86 runs at Old Trafford.

The next game was equally terrifying against Ian Chappell’s Australians. Chasing 329 to win, Sri Lanka was 150 for two at one point when Jeff Thomson sent Duleep Mendis and Sunil Wettimuny to the hospital with his brutal pace.

In the first five editions of the tournament, Sri Lanka’s record wasn’t too convincing, winning just four games after 26 matches.


Jubilant Sri Lankan players after they had beaten the Australians in the 1996 World Cup final in Lahore.   -  Getty Images


But 1996 changed it all. Having finished that campaign unbeaten, the Sri Lankans would go on to reach the finals twice again in 2007 and 2011. Their performance from 1996 onwards has been impressive, winning 33 games out of 50.

The triumph in 1996 is Sri Lanka’s greatest achievement in sports. No one had given it a chance to win the title, but Arjuna Ranatunga’s side took the world by storm. Explosive batting by Sanath Jayasuriya was complemented by the reliable Aravinda de Silva, who posted an unbeaten hundred in the final against Australia in Lahore. His half-century in the semifinal against India in Calcutta was equally classy.

Sri Lanka beat India twice in India in that tournament before sealing Australia’s fate in the final with a seven-wicket win. It had come a long way since Chappell’s side exposed it to harsher realities two decades ago. Sri Lanka’s outstanding fielding and all-round abilities of the top-order batsmen stood it in good stead in 1996, although its attack wasn’t the most formidable one in the competition.

Sri Lanka’s greatest triumph in its pre-Test era was recorded in the 1979 event as it overcame a strong Indian outfit. This win helped it gain Test status two years later. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s case for Test status was successful after it beat England in a World Cup game in 1992. Bangladesh too became a full member after beating Pakistan in 1999.

Kenya returned the Sri Lankans the compliment in 2003 when it won by 53 runs in Nairobi. Steve Tikolo’s side beat two other full members in that competition — Zimbabwe and Bangladesh — and went on to reach the semifinals.

Sri Lanka’s worst performance in World Cups was in 1999 when, as defending champion, it failed to go beyond the first round. Its performance in 1987 was also bad having failed to win a single encounter in six games.

But over 11 editions, individual Sri Lanka players have excelled at the World Cup. Of the 17 players who have gone on to complete 1,000 runs in World Cups, five are Sri Lankans: Kumar Sangakkara (1,532), Sanath Jayasuriya (1,165), T. M. Dilshan (1,112), Mahela Jayawardene (1,110) and Aravinda de Silva (1,064).

Of the top 10 wicket-takers at the World Cup, three are Sri Lankans: Muttiah Muralitharan (68), Chaminda Vaas (49) and Lasith Malinga (43).

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