A hat-trick in the first over

Skipper Arjuna Ranatunga orchestrated Sri Lanka's greatest cricketing triumph as he motivated and inspired and also dared to dream in 1996. S. Dinakar looks back on the team's fortunes.

The Grandmaster made all the right moves. On the sub-continental tracks, the spinners denied the batsmen pace to work the ball around. The fielders in the circle choked the flow of runs. Sri Lanka, finally, had an attack that worked.

Ajruna Ranatunga had his finger on the pulse. He was a captain in control. After all, cricket was like a game of chess for the Lankan.

Ranatunga orchestrated Sri Lanka's greatest cricketing triumph. He motivated and inspired. He also dared to dream.

Crucial switches were carried out in batting. Mark Greatbatch had given indications in the previous World Cup about the first 15 overs being as productive as the last 10.

The Lankans developed the idea. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana blasted away. This left-right opening combination disrupted the rhythm of the bowlers. This opened the path for the later batsmen.

Sri Lanka also played the extra batsman in Roshan Mahanama. In the event of a collapse he could don the role of a fire-fighter when the other side had a sniff.

The technically accomplished Aravinda de Silva held fort at crunch. Sri Lanka slumped to two for one and 35 for three in the semifinal at Eden Gardens. Aravinda's majestic 66 and Mahanama's 58 were largely responsible for Sri Lanka reaching 251 for eight.

Then, the Indians ran into a truckload of trouble with off-spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumara Dharmasena and Jayasuriya's left-arm variety cutting out all escape routes.

The spinners were once again spot on in the final at the Gaddafi Stadium as Australia stumbled from 137 for one. Aravinda's unbeaten 107 was all about classical shot-making. Skipper Ranatunga (47 not out) cut, nicked and drove and Lanka was home by seven wickets.

Ironically, Sri Lanka's worst display arrived as the defending champion in England four years hence.

The side was brushed aside by England by seven wickets in the opener at Lord's. It never really recovered after that. South Africa, defending 199, bundled out the Lankans for 110 at Northamton, landing a severe blow to the holder's chances of progressing to the Super Six.

Sri Lanka squeezed past Zimbabwe by four wickets at Worcester, but was down for the count once the rampant Indians ran up a score of 373 for six at Taunton. The batsmen struggled to cope with movement, in the air and off the pitch.

The side, riding on some excellent bowling by the clever left-arm swing bowler Chamida Vaas — he claimed a hat-trick against Bangladesh — and off-spinning wizard Muttiah Muralitharan, reached the semifinal of the last edition in South Africa before an aggressive effort from Andrew Symonds swung the game Australia's way.

Sri Lanka's baptism in the World Cup, in England (1975), saw the side turning out a heroic performance at Kennington Oval. Australia sizzled to 328 for five off 60 overs. The Lankan chase, against some hostile pace bowling by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, was stirring.

Siddath Wettimuny retired hurt for 53 and Anura Tennekoon and skipper Michael Tissera came up with classy efforts as Sri Lanka reached 276 for four, against what was then, the most feared attack in the world.

In the 1979 World Cup, again in the Old Blighty, Sri Lanka shocked India by 47 runs at Old Trafford, strengthening the country's case for inclusion in the Test arena. Wettimuny, Roy Dias, who possessed one of the finest cover drives, and the hard-hitting Duleep Mendis rattled up half-centuries and then Tony Opatha and D. S. de Silva struck critical blows with the ball.

Sri Lanka showed it had bridged the gap further during the 1983 competition, in England. The side, with paceman Asantha de Mel scalping five for 39, almost defeated Pakistan at Leeds, and then surprised New Zealand by seven wickets at Derby. The lively De Mel was once again the pick.

Sri Lanka had a poor World Cup in 1987 (India and Pakistan) losing all its matches. The Lankan bowling was easy meat for Pakistan, England and West Indies. The emergence of Muralitharan would change things.

In the 1992 edition down under, Sri Lanka clinched a memorable victory, pursuing 313, against Zimbabwe at New Plymouth. The side, gradually faded away in the competition, but the victory over Zimbabwe was a sign of things to come.

The Lankans scaled the peak four years later.