When the Lankan lions roared in Lahore

Crowning glory… Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga receives the Wills World Cup trophy from Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.-PICS: V. V. KRISHNAN

For a nation troubled by violence, the World Cup triumph was a soothing relief. And what made it all possible for the island nation was Ranatunga’s leadership and Aravinda’s sensational batting through the tournament. By Vijay Lokapally.

It was Sri Lankan cricket’s finest hour. The nation, which co-hosted the Wills World Cup with India and Pakistan, went on to win the trophy in Lahore with a well-earned victory over Australia.

The triumph was a strong statement from the Sri Lankan skipper, Arjuna Ranatunga, following the controversy that had dogged his team in Australia. The row involved the Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and umpire Darryl Hair in a Test match in Melbourne in 1995. Hair had “called” Murali for “chucking”, which, in turn, motivated the Sri Lankan team into giving off its best in the second World Cup to be held in the sub-continent.

Cricket in Sri Lanka took a severe beating when Australia and the West Indies refused to travel to the island nation for their league matches. The crisis threatened to cripple the tournament even before a ball had been bowled. A bomb incident at a bank cast a shadow of doubt over matches being held in Sri Lanka, while the cricket authorities tried their best to convince the participating teams. In a gesture aimed at allaying security fears, cricketers from India and Pakistan came together to play a ‘friendship’ match.

However, the start suited Sri Lanka as the team went into the next stage of the tournament following the walkovers from Australia and West Indies.

It was a tournament full of incidents. Coming close on the heels of the walkovers was the crowd trouble at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta that brought disrepute to the game.

In the semi-finals against Sri Lanka, India, chasing 252 to win, collapsed on a crumbling pitch and invited the wrath of the spectators. As missiles flew on to the playing arena and the crowd refused to allow the match to continue, the match referee, Clive Lloyd, awarded the match to Sri Lanka, with India tottering at 120 for eight. The image of Vinod Kambli in tears stayed with the cricket fans for a long, long time, but the incident reflected the poor spirit of the spectators.

Sri Lanka's heroes… Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga were the chief architects of their team's dream finish in the Wills World Cup.-

The tournament had grown in size with debutants United Arab Emirates, The Netherlands and Kenya competing with the best of the world. Kenya shook the cricketing world, scoring an upset victory against the West Indies in Pune.

However, for Sri Lanka, which had a splendid combination, it was a confident march with some sterling contributions from every quarter.

Aravinda de Silva and Asanka Gurusinha were the batting stars for Sri Lanka. Aravinda aggregated 448 runs, while Gurusinha totalled 307, much to the delight of Ranatunga. The Sri Lankan skipper was instrumental in planning his team’s assault with Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. The openers gave the Sri Lankan innings a big thrust with their attacking style. Their aggression paved the way for Sri Lanka adopting a positive approach in conditions that were very demanding. Australia played superbly to make it to the final for the third time in the quadrennial event. Having won the title in 1987, the Australians had the measure of the conditions in the sub-continent and cruised to the title round with brilliant victories against New Zealand in the quarterfinals, and against West Indies in the semi-finals.

Sri Lanka, hugely inspired by Ranatunga and in-form Aravinda, had reserved its best for the final. Australia managed 241, with skipper Mark Taylor contributing a fine 74. It was a decent total to defend since Australia had Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming and Shane Warne in its ranks. But then, Sri Lanka had Aravinda. After the openers failed, Aravinda got into the act in the company of Gurusinha and Ranatunga to steer his team to victory with plenty to spare.

For a nation troubled by violence, the World Cup triumph was a soothing relief.

And what made it all possible for Sri Lanka was Ranatunga’s leadership and Aravinda’s sensational batting through the tournament.