A dream run for the Sri Lankans

ARJUNA RANATUNGA, no doubt, was a players' captain who brought the best out of the Sri Lankan team to win the World Cup, hosted jointly by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

G. VISWANATH

ARJUNA RANATUNGA, no doubt, was a players' captain who brought the best out of the Sri Lankan team to win the World Cup, hosted jointly by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Earlier, before the World Cup, his support of Muttiah Muralitharan to the hilt — the bowler was called by Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson, during the tour of Australia — showed his concern for the players.

In the World Cup final, Ranatunga, fittingly, spent a good time in the middle, faced 47 balls, before executing the winning shot against Australia at Lahore on March 17, 1996. He played the support role to the outstanding performer in the final, Aravinda de Silva. The Lankan captain remained unbeaten on 47.

It was the finest hour of Sri Lankan cricket and to Ranatunga, in particular, in the presence of a packed crowd which supported Lanka at the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore. The Sri Lankans not only beat the Australians, but also beat them handsomely.

Some of the cynics described Lanka's fine achievement as a fluke, a flash in the pan... . They were not inclined to regard Ranatunga's team as the true champion, because they thought that the island nation was a non-entity in the World Cup as well as in the traditional form of the game, the Test cricket.

This was the case with India in the 1983 World Cup, when the team was simply dismissed as a no hoper, especially, against the mighty West Indies, led by Clive Lloyd, in the final. The critics grudgingly accepted India's victory in 1983 as well Pakistan's triumph in 1992. But the two giants of the sub-continent have had produced some outstanding players.

In less than two decades after it was admitted as full member in 1980, the Sri Lankans successfully crossed frontiers and held their own in the limited overs format. They established themselves and fought the rivals on an equal footing, though Ranatunga said after receiving a red-carpet welcome in Colombo that his team had won the World Cup four years ahead of time.

Sri Lankan cricket turned the corner, conquering teams and winning major prizes in the mid-1990s. The World Cup win marked high point of its progress. Ranatunga might not have had the opportunity to grow under the tutelage of doyens like Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon, Stanley Jayasinghe and David Heyn, but he had the advantage of playing alongside someone like Duleep Mendis, who was a key member of Sri Lanka's team that played in the inaugural Prudential Cup in 1975.

At the outset, Ranatunga proved that he is not one among the pack of the ordinary. He kept himself busy in the middle as a batsman and garnered runs without any frills. Cutting his teeth in the 1983 World Cup was a major breakthrough in his career and, it was around that time Sri Lanka was growing as a Test nation.

Ranatunga was a smart man. Once elevated to the rank of a captain, he won the confidence of his players and the coach and generally called the shots. But for a captain to take complete control, he has to lead by example. He has to be a successful batsman or a bowler. Ranatunga was fairly successful with the bat and led his team well and won matches.

He did not have a great team to start with. He picked the players and provided them the exposure. He never gave the impression of an autocratic leader. He had the qualities to take everybody with him; even the establishment and the coach who he said recently "worked towards one goal of making the team into a winning combination."

There is a famous saying in cricket that a captain is only as good as his team. It was true with Ranatunga, too. But to his credit, Ranatunga was no-nonsense captain. He was given a free hand, and he made sure that he had the right men in his ranks. In Human Potential, authors Wendy Cooper and Tom Smith ask, "Whether one needs to be exceptional to push oneself beyond limits?" They feel that actions are directed by circumstances.

It was a big surprise in the 1996 World Cup, when Ranatunga inserted the Australians and decided to chase a target in the final. Before that, in the five championships, only teams that had batted first had won the Cups.

In fact, during that period there was bloodshed due to ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. But the Lankan team was based in South of the country, which had better environment. The Cricket Board and the people backed the captain to the hilt. In fact Australia and the West Indies decided to stay away from the matches in Sri Lanka due to security reasons. They were scheduled to play against Sri Lanka in Colombo.

But the Sri Lankan players meant business when they got down to action in the middle. A batting order starting from the aggressive opening pair in Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana and ending with Roshan Mahanama was just the recipe that brought victories for Ranatunga's team.

Sri Lanka was not always successful with the plan of making the most of it in the first 15 overs, but as Ranatunga told The Sportstar in Mumbai recently: "We decided that Aravinda will bat at No. 4 and myself at No. 6. The idea was that the key players had to be preserved and protected in order to give them the opportunity in the middle and end overs.

The key to Sri Lanka's success was that there was no fiddling around with the batting positions for its top batsmen. Ranatunga finished the World Cup with a remarkable average of 120.50, scoring 241 from six matches.

De Silva made 448 runs with two centuries and as many half centuries. He became the third batsman to score a century (107 not out) in the final after Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. Jayasuriya who succeeded in a few matches made 221.

Another consistent performer was Asanka Gurusinha, who made 307 runs. There were no great bowling performances actually, but here again Ranatunga's captaincy acumen came to the fore when he used De Silva in the final. The slow pitch helped him to pick three good wickets. The three spinners, Muralitharan, Jayasuriya and Kumara Dharmasena, together accounted for 20 wickets.

Sri Lanka was an 8 to 1 outsider to win the World Cup. The team received a ticker tape welcome in Colombo. Ranatunga credited the win to those who played in the event and also those who had played for Sri Lanka before. "It's like a dream come true for me.

"It's the greatest gift to Sri Lankan cricket," said Ranatunga who picked seven specialist batsmen and used Jayasuriya and De Silva's part time spin in two crucial matches, the semi-final and the final.