Roy Dias smiles when asked about Sri Lanka’s win over India in the 1979 World Cup. Sri Lanka, at the time an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), stunned a strong Indian team which included the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath, Bishan Singh Bedi and skipper S. Venkataraghavan.
Dias, a stylish middle-order batsman, played his part in the Manchester win with a 50. “Many of the Sri Lankan players were playing in Manchester clubs at the time, so we had good support at the ground. After the game, we had dinner with Gavaskar and other members of the Indian team. The friendships that we built is going strong to this day,” Dias, the Sri Lanka ‘A’ coach, tells Sportstar here on Sunday.
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Sri Lanka’s only success at that World Cup helped chart the future of cricket in the country. “Our performance against India gave us the belief that we belonged on the world stage, and it also gave credence to Sri Lanka’s push for ICC full membership,” Dias says.
Sri Lanka did gain full membership in 1981, becoming the eighth Test playing nation. “When we received the news, we had a big celebratory dinner. Being recognised as a Test nation was a big deal,” Dias recalls.
Dias, who played 20 Tests and 58 ODIs, went on to establish himself as one of the great batsmen of his generation.
Nearly a decade after he hung up his boots, Dias donned the role of selector in Sri Lanka’s famous 1996 World Cup triumph. Dias got a first-hand view of the evolution of the island nation from a rank outsider to world champion. “Before the 1996 World Cup win, not many people could even spot Sri Lanka on the world map. The people of Sri Lanka gained a sense of national pride, much like what happened in India after the 1983 World Cup. Cricket became our main sport, and there was no looking back,” Dias states, adding, “I can never forget the reception that the team got when they returned home. I met the players at the airport, and we were taken on a lovely parade to the President’s house in Colombo. People lined the streets; there were celebrations everywhere. Sri Lankan cricket had arrived; we were no longer the minnows.”
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Dias credits Arjuna Ranatunga as the driving force behind the team’s success. “Arjuna was a born leader – one of the greatest captains of all time. He always managed to get his players to play well above their potential. He was also a master tactician who read the game brilliantly. Arjuna was not a captain who sat back and waited for things to happen; he would force the pace. In many ways, he was a lot like M.S. Dhoni – someone who had the knack of making the right moves at the right time,” he says.
“I remember the first time I met Arjuna – at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Arjuna was a chubby, baby-faced teenager at the time. He surprised me, as he was the first person to call me ‘ Aiyya’ (laughs). Arjuna and I go back a long way, so it was thrilling to see him to lift the World Cup trophy.”