When history was braved

HE walked in like a man possessed, determination writ large on his face. So much so, it was clear that Aravinda de Silva would take destiny in his hands, help Sri Lanka create history.

SANJAY RAJAN

HE walked in like a man possessed, determination writ large on his face. So much so, it was clear that Aravinda de Silva would take destiny in his hands, help Sri Lanka create history.

The Wills World Cup of 1996, hosted by the sub-continent, was Sri Lanka's turn to do the improbable, achieve the impossible. Arjuna Ranatunga braved history — of no side batting second having won the final till then — by opting to chase, and successfully, under lights against Australia at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.

It was billed as the clash between Australian method and Sri Lankan flair. The precision of the Australians, much like the South Africans, was only overwhelmed by individual brilliance. On that glorious Sunday, March 17, De Silva was magical.

Sri Lanka romped into the final in a domineering fashion, unbeaten all the way, while Mark Taylor's Australians came through after two pulsating knock-out clashes, the latter being the semifinal against the West Indies at Mohali which Richie Richardson's Caribbeans lost from a winning position.

Sri Lanka was the clear favourite, owing to its familiarity with the conditions. It possessed an astute captain in Ranatunga, one who wasn't ruffled even when in a tight corner. He seemed to have possessed the right answers.

Given the conditions, Sri Lanka had the perfect combination. Ranatunga might have just had one quality speedster in left-armer Chaminda Vaas, but he had the support of spinners on the slow wickets of the sub-continent. The island nation had depth in batting owing to its long list of all-rounders and Ranatunga, a great captain with the ability to inspire his players, brought out the best in part-time spinners Sanath Jayasuriya and De Silva.

The cricket followers also looked at the contest as a grudge match, following the souring of cricket relations during Sri Lanka's last tour of Australia. Muttiah Muralitharan was called by the umpires for chucking.

It was clear that the final would be a test of nerves. It was a clash between two astute captains. Tubby Taylor was the kind who could spot a weakness quickly and take advantage of it faster. Ranatunga approached the game like chess, at which he was a Grandmaster. Moreover, he had readied his boys to take on the Aussies in their sport of psychological warfare.

Taylor was eager to add another World Cup to the one brought home by Allan Border in 1987 (co-hosted by India and Pakistan) and Ranatunga understood that here was Lanka's best chance. Both captains, however, acknowledged that overs-limit cricket was about that day. As Ranatunga pointed out, "you could have played well all the way to this point and still suffer a bad day and lose."

The Aussie speedsters did seem to suffer the Asian blues on flat pitches while the Asian batsmen played leg-spinner Shane Warne better than the others. "Any team has to play well to beat Australia," said Tubby.

Ranatunga said, "We'll play positively. Rather than the tag favourite, we'd prefer being the underdog. It goes well with us." Limited-overs cricket is about momentum and Ranatunga, who took advantage of the concept of pinch-hitters, hoped that Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana would provide yet another blazing start. That was not to be. But then, there was Aravinda, who scored the first century in a final since 1979 as Sri Lanka overhauled Australia's score of 241 with seven wickets in hand and 22 deliveries to spare.

It was obvious that Ranatunga opted to chase relying on his team's strengths that lie in the batting that can be particularly spectacular in the face of a known target. So it was.

The portly Lankan skipper was masterly in the handling of the middle overs. He shuffled his bowlers with dexterity in the face of opener Mark Taylor's assault and found the key in his deputy De Silva, adjudged Man of the Final, for, his overall contribution (three wickets, two catches and a century), whose off-spin gained a lot of bite from a pitch that had been covered by three layers of covers until the overnight rain let-up on the afternoon of the final.

The bowling of the spinners complemented Ranatunga's imaginative field placements, so much so that the Australian innings, set to climb to great heights on Taylor's power and Ricky Ponting's controlled play — the two put on 101 for the second wicket — was restricted to a fighting total, with De Silva accounting for both men. In fact, there were just three hits to the fence in the last 26 overs, such was Lanka's display on the field.

The Island nation lost both openers with the scoreboard showing just 23. In walked De Silva, the man for the moment who simply carried on from where he left (66) in the semifinal against India. Much like Inzamam-ul-Haq, who came good in the final two contests and fashioned Pakistan's triumph in the previous edition, this was De Silva's tournament.

De Silva was at his authoritative best and his partner in the clinical destruction of the Australian attack was left-hander Asanka Gurusinghe, who pulled and flat-batted Warne. The two put on 125. Even as the Pakistani crowd was solidly behind the Lankans, screaming — Lanka Zindabad — the Grandmaster and De Silva guided the side to victory.

While describing De Silva's ton was the best innings he's ever witnessed, Ranatunga said, "Once we won the toss we knew we had a good chance to win, if we restricted Australia to 240-250. I am not the one to go by history. We have been chasing successfully, that's the reason I opted to field first. And once Aravinda got into the mood, the match was ours. In a way I'd like to thank the Australian tour for our triumph."

Taylor acknowledged Sri Lanka's growth, saying, "they improved a hell of a lot. They believe in attacking batsmanship and defensive bowling to win matches and keep the right field placing for the off-spinners. But today, Aravinda won the final for them.

"At 152 for three we had the game, but lost quick wickets. Their spinners bowled 37 of the 50 overs and it was difficult to get runs off them. One-day cricket is about building the pressure on the opposition early. Sri Lanka deserved it. Aravinda was there at the end of the dig."

The scores:

Australia: M. Taylor c Jayasuriya b De Silva 74, M. Waugh c Jayasuriya b Vaas 12, R. Ponting b De Slva 45, S. Waugh c De Silva b Dharmasena 13, S. Warne st. Kaluwitharana b Muralitharan 2, S. Law c De Silva b Jayasuriya 22, M. Bevan (not out) 36, I. Healy b De Silva 2, P. Reiffel (not out) 13, Extras (lb-10, w-11, nb-1) 22; Total (for seven wkts., in 50 overs) 241.

Fall of wickets: 1-36, 2-137, 3-152, 4-156, 5-170, 6-202, 7-205.

Sri Lanka: Wickremasinghe 7-0-38-0, Vaas 6-1-30-1, Muralitharan 10-0-31-1, Dharmasena 10-0-47-1, Jayasuriya 8-0-43-1, De Silva 9-0-42-3.

Sri Lanka: S. Jayasuriya (run out) 9, R. Kaluwitharana c Bevan b Fleming 6, A. Gurusinghe b Reiffel 65, A. de Silva (not out) 107, A. Ranatunga (not out) 47, Extras (b-1, lb-4, w-5, nb-1) 11; Total (for three wkts., in 46.2 overs) 245.

Fall of wickets: 1-12, 2-23, 3-148.

Australia: McGrath 8.2-1-28-0, Fleming 6-0-43-1, Warne 10-0-58-0, Reiffel 10-0-49-1, M. Waugh 6-0-35-0, S. Waugh 3-0-15-0, Bevan 3-0-12-0.