Redefining the modern one-day game

The think tank. Coach Dav Whatmore, former captain Duleep Mendis and skipper Arjuna Ranatunga involved in a discussion.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The 1995-96 tour of Australia did many things for Sri Lankan cricket. The side — in siege after Darrell Hair called Muralitharan for throwing — closed ranks under Ranatunga's umbrella of nationalist pride, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Underdog stories, mainstreamed by Hollywood, have increasingly become parodies of what they set out to portray. The genre's narrative hook lies in the back-story: the stacking of odds needs to be believable — and unfair — for emotional investment yet incredible for a heart-warming blowoff. Subtlety is everything.

The story of Sri Lanka's World Cup triumph in 1996 is as subtle as it gets. Its success as an underdog story owed itself to the number of illusions it created. Sri Lanka was never a cricketing minnow in the strictest sense of the term. Cultural linkages entrench sport through generations: in this regard Sri Lanka was as well served as a non-Test playing nation could wish to be. The culture of international cricket goes as far back as 1882 when a Ceylon team took on a touring English side, stopping over on its way to Australia. England and Australia continued to undertake whistle-stop tours of the island. Since official entry, Sri Lanka defeated India in the 1979 World Cup, and despite struggling through the 80s, managed ODI victories over every other Test-playing nation in the decade.

Another successful illusion was the triumph's enduring memory: not Arjuna Ranatunga accepting the Cup from Benazir Bhutto or Aravinda de Silva controlling Sri Lanka's chase in the final after taking three wickets and two catches, but Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana cavorting down the track to the opening bowlers through the tournament. The tactic of pinch-hitting was quickly celebrated as one that would redefine the modern one-day game. But Steve Waugh, in his autobiography `Out of my Comfort Zone', suggests there was more to it then met the eye: "A lot of attention was directed their way throughout the tournament and a large amount of the credit for the ultimate victory was attached to their partnership. However, upon closer analysis maybe the link between their triumph and their openers wasn't as clear-cut as it was reputed to be."

Waugh's hypothesis is borne out by the numbers: the opening partnership, despite a 40-ball 83 against Kenya and a 53 that included 42 from three overs against India in the group stages, realised stands of 5 against Zimbabwe, 12 in the quarterfinal against England, 1 in the semifinal against India, and 12 in the final against Australia. The point is of course, and Waugh alludes to it, that the partnership worked on another level as well: it created a decoy. Oppositions bought into the chimera, and planned extensively for the pair — much as India did in the semifinal at Calcutta. That allowed Ranataunga's capable, experienced middle-order the tactical space for subversion.

The coming together of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana also marks one of the events that shaped the 1996 World Cup campaign: the tour to Australia. Roshan Mahanama, the regular opener, was injured for a tri-series match in 1995-96, and manager Duleep Mendis reportedly asked coach Dav Whatmore if he'd like to promote Kaluwitharana. "I'd love it," Wisden quotes Whatmore as saying. That Jayasuriya (left-arm spin) and Kaluwitharna (wicket-keeping) had another role to fulfil allowed them the fearlessness essential for plunder. Mahanama slotted back in at seven, thus helping Sri Lanka build a redoubtable chasing line-up.

The 1995-96 tour of Australia did many things for Sri Lankan cricket. The side — in siege after Darrell Hair called Muralitharan for throwing — closed ranks under Ranatunga's umbrella of nationalist pride. "It was the attitude of Australia that helped us become mentally tough," said Aravinda de Silva of an acrimonious tour that degenerated to a point where his mates refused to shake Mark Taylor's hand. "To have gone through such an ordeal was a new experience for us. It helped us win the World Cup."

A feeling of being wronged, exacerbated later by Australia's refusal to play its league match scheduled in Sri Lanka, set in. Ranatunga put the quest for revenge on slow burn: feuds are all-consuming, ruinous affairs, but Ranatunga manipulated it just right. Indeed, Steve Waugh writes in his autobiography that Muralitharan became a "pawn" in a battle of wills between Ranatunga and Hair, the representation of Australian officialdom. The assertion must be put in perspective, for Waugh and Ranatunga weren't exactly drinking mates. But, it does confirm the truism that the former Sri Lankan captain was a formidable exponent of mind games; he certainly managed to get the Australians in enough of a palaver to burn their toast.

The tour also helped Sri Lanka tactically in the facets of bowling and fielding: mundane as it may seem, Ranatunga cased out the Australian batsmen — the fields he set for Michael Bevan in the World Cup final were evidence enough — and confirmed his suspicions that they struggled against finger spin.

The other event that influenced the Lankan campaign, specifically the chase in the final, occurred at the SSC in 1992. The islanders needed 181 for a rare Test win against Australia. But, Sri Lanka imploded, and fell short by 16. "We were a little too anxious for victory," said de Silva. "We wanted to get there as soon as possible. That happens when you become anxious. We learnt from that defeat."

Learn they did. Aravinda found himself walking in at 23 for two at the Gaddafi Stadium, chasing 242 for the World Cup. He finished with an unbeaten 107 — an innings of genius played by a man who was sufficiently desperate not to let up "until the final run was scored" as he said later. Much of the spadework for the win, however, was done the night before. Sri Lanka practised under lights, realised dew would be a factor, and decided to chase — unprecedented in World Cup finals — if it won the toss. Australia, on the other hand, had to endure an official dinner (Waugh called it a "bureaucratic bullshit fest"). Taylor revealed, however, that he would have batted first regardless.

Further proof of the subtlety of Sri Lanka's run lay in the fact that few were surprised when the side made the final; yet, at no stage did it seem inevitable. As it sometimes — and gloriously — happens in team sport, each member of the side that assembled under Ranatunga seemed to have taken inexorable steps to being there, each having passed a critical stage of evolution.

Asanka Gurusinha, the slovenly, ursine left-hander, was immense. He was the perfect number three for the tournament: a bullying bat that could paint in the shades between the batsmanship of the openers and the finely varying ones of de Silva, Ranatunga, Tillakaratne, and Mahanama That Gurusinha snuck through almost unnoticed until he flat-batted Warne for six in the final was a further illusion. But, perhaps, the most insidious illusion of all, confirming the story's subtlety, was the foreshortened after-glow.

Sri Lanka slipped into a phase of administrative debauchery that translated into tactical decay, forcing Ranatunga to remark that the triumph came four years too soon.