Self-pride proved the driving force

IT was an emphatic World Cup triumph for Sri Lanka, as it did not lose a single match, just as the West Indies had done in 1975 and 1979. It was a win, which had a lasting impact on the Lankan populace.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

IT was an emphatic World Cup triumph for Sri Lanka, as it did not lose a single match, just as the West Indies had done in 1975 and 1979. It was a win, which had a lasting impact on the Lankan populace. Rattled by terrorist attacks at home because of an ethnic strife, the citizens of this small island sought solace in cricket and their reward came in the shape of the World Cup.

Sri Lankan cricket had experienced some very unpleasant phases in its journey to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore where the final was scheduled. The team had been subjected to humiliation in Australia following the Muttiah Muralitharan episode. It worked in the team's favour because it brought the players together. And then the turmoil at home was most unfortunate. Sri Lanka, as a nation, was up against the greatest challenge. And it emerged unscathed on both the fronts — politics and sports.

On the cricket field, the team saw the hidden joy, which could lift the spirits of its countrymen. It was a gigantic task, no doubt. Sri Lanka had not even remotely raised visions of making it to the semifinals in the previous five editions, leave alone winning the Cup. Cricket united the Sri Lankans and it was indeed a tribute to the devotion of Arjuna Ranatunga and his men that the team established itself at the top, the summit clash with Australia and the subsequent win bringing great joy to the island.

It was a great moment for Sri Lanka. For Australia and the West Indies it was a jolt, which reminded them of their silly stand of not travelling to the island for security reasons. Australia and the West Indies forfeited their matches against Sri Lanka at Colombo and that left a sour taste. The Sri Lankans took an early pledge that nothing short of a title win would bring respect to their nation. It was this fierce self-pride that proved the driving force for Ranatunga to emerge the leader at the end of the Cup.

Ranatunga's impeccable captaincy was the feature of Sri Lanka's win. I would stress here that Sri Lanka read the playing conditions the best of all the teams. The subcontinent was a challenge for the others but Sri Lanka appeared comfortable in all its outings. At the centre of this confidence was Ranatunga, who knew that the condition of the pitches was a big advantage to his team. Slow and helping the spinners, the pitches contributed immensely to Sri Lanka reaching the pinnacle.

Ranatunga was a crafty captain. He made the right bowling changes, employed the most tactical fielding positions and his commanding presence on the field was a great source of inspiration for his mates. The Lankans raised their game and the opponents suffered. It was a complete victory scripted by a collective force, which set up an amazingly disciplined course to follow. It was Ranatunga's move to push wicketkeeper Romesh Kaluwitharana to the opener's slot along with Sanath Jayasuriya. It proved a master strategy since Sri Lanka had the depth in batting to compensate the early dismissals in case Kalu and Sanath did not click. The openers were given specific instructions to smash the bowlers in the first 15 overs. Ranatunga was candid when he remarked, "We decided to go into all matches thinking we were zero for the loss of the openers." The Sri Lankans could afford the failures of the openers. Only two fifty-plus opening partnerships came Sri Lanka's way but in the process it discovered the sensational importance of Jayasuriya as an opener. His unconventional batting methods at the top earned him the `Player of the Tournament' honour, certainly one of the many feathers in Sri Lanka's cricket cap because he pushed back performers such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mark Waugh.

Batting remained Sri Lanka's forte. Asanka Gurusinha at three, followed by Aravinda de Silva, Ranatunga, Hashan Tillekeratne and Roshan Mahanama, gave the batting line up such a formidable look. The fact that Mahanama would walk in No. 7 gave the bowlers a lot of worry. And then Kumara Dharmasena and Chaminda Vaas could slam the ball hard in the lower half, if required. The tailenders were hardly required to bat, so good were the batsmen in their duty.

The man who shaped Sri Lanka's destiny in the tournament was Aravinda — winning four `Man of the Match' awards in six outings, including the semifinal and final. Aravinda's scores in winning those individual distinctions were 91 against Zimbabwe, 145 against Kenya, 66 against India in the semifinal and 107 not out against Australia in the final.

One cannot ignore the coaching acumen of Dav Whatmore, the wily Australian who was quick to identify the abilities of the Sri Lankans. He was doing a fine service to the country of his birth. Whatmore did not lose time in channelising the efforts and was primarily responsible for the stunning change in attitude — the Lankans were far more aggressive, motivated and fitter than ever before. Even Ranatunga and Aravinda were put through the paces and forced to prove their fitness. The sad part of the great triumph was Whatmore resigning as coach of the team soon after the Cup, only to return after the next Cup in 1999, which saw Sri Lanka perform disastrously. The same fans back home jeered the 1999 team.

The analysis would be incomplete without mention of the selectors who backed the team to pull it off. In retaining Ranatunga as captain and placing their faith in seniors such as Aravinda and Gurusinha, the selectors showed a very mature approach. And also their brilliant thinking, by picking spinners as the strength of the attack, keeping in mind the conditions in the sub-continent.

T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka, a former diplomat, in his book The Glorious Cricketers of Sri Lanka, best sums up the celebrations of the Sri Lankans. The Air Lanka flight from Lahore to Colombo was delayed to accommodate the team, which was keen to leave on the night of the final. Dissanayaka wrote, "The Commander of the flight was Captain Sunil Wettimuny, who opened batting for Sri Lanka in the 1975 World Cup. On landing, the aircraft was surrounded by thousands of wildly cheering airport employees. The team brought glory to the country as in ancient times." It was a golden day in Sri Lanka's history as fans lined up on the roads and it took the players a long time before they reached home.

Ranatunga was the `Anna' (elder brother) to all his mates and this camaraderie played a big part in Sri Lanka emerging such a strong force in limited overs cricket. The World Cup triumph was the beginning of a new dawn in Sri Lankan cricket and the team has shone brightly since.