Boasting greater solidity and bodily weight today, the triumphant Sri Lankan cricket team of 1996 were hosted in celbratory manner in the land of the vanquished THEN— in Melbourne, the cricketing centre of the cricketing giants Australia,
Rex Clementine, in The Sunday Island, 6 November 2016, where the title runs ” Golden era of Sri Lankan cricket”
The World Cup winning Sri Lankan cricket team has just concluded a trip to Australia to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their triumph on that remarkable night of March 17th 1996 at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Seeing images of the team touring Australia brought back nostalgic memories as it was the players of this particular team that formed the nucleus of the side that ushered in the golden era of Sri Lankan cricket. The four year period from 1995 to 1998 can easily be considered as the golden era of Sri Lankan cricket for their outstanding achievements and the fear they created in opposition. They were not as dominant as Clive Lloyd’s West Indies of the 1970s, but the exciting brand of cricket they played helped change the way the sport was played.
People consider Arjuna Ranatunga’s champion team as a very good one-day outfit, but often they challenged the age old traditions of longer version of the game as well. In a Test match, after winning the toss, a score of 70 or 80 without losing a wicket by lunch on day one was considered a very good start. But Arjuna’s team changed those concepts with a dynamic opener like Sanath Jayasuriya at the helm.
Spare a thought for Shaun Pollock, the South African captain, who had just taken over after Hansie Cronje’s fall from grace following the match fixing controversy. These were hard times for South African cricket and Pollock lost the toss in the first Test in Galle and then saw Jayasuriya murdering his bowlers as Sri Lanka made 148 for no loss by lunch on day one. Graham Ford, who was South Africa’s coach at that point was recently asked about his memories in Galle. “Look, I have some wonderful memories of this ground coaching Sri Lanka and I have some terrible memories in this ground coaching South Africa. We had an awful match here. I know Sanath Jayasuriya was 96 not out at lunch on the first day of the Test match. We ended up losing by an innings. It was an annihilation,” Ford recently told Sunday Island.
Those days anther popular thought used to be that once a team posts 400 plus runs in the first innings, the chances of that team losing the game were rare. Not when the likes of Murali, Aravinda and Sanath are part of a Sri Lankan team. Ask England captain Alec Stewart, who thought he had enough on the board when his team posted 445 for the first innings after being put into bat at The Oval in 1998.
Aravinda and Jayasuriya then scored runs at a rapid pace to take a 146 run lead. Murali took nine wickets in England’s second innings (the other batsman was run out) and Sri Lanka went onto win their first Test in England.
It was a shame that England had given the World Champions just one off Test and after the humiliation Arjuna’s men gave them, the English and Wales Cricket Board ensured that the island’s cricketing credentials were respected. Sadly, Arjuna was never able to play a Test series against England as all his contests against them were one off Tests.
During that period, Sri Lanka had also won their maiden Test overseas, which they achieved by beating New Zealand in 1995. Later that year, they won a Test series in Pakistan as well coming from behind. The same year, they lost the Test series in Australia 3-0. Despite the hammering, that series toughened up the team following allegations of ball tampering and horrendous umpiring. The no balling of Muralitharan for chucking on the Boxing Day in front of 55,000 fans was the last straw. It fired up the team and they were seeking vengeance. That day arrived three months later in Lahore when Aravinda came up with the innings of his life to help Sri Lanka create history.
That team was very much feared by the opposition. Jayasuriya alone ended several players’ careers with the most notable ones being Manoj Prabhakar and Philip DeFreitas.
In 1997, during the Asia Cup final, Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar had all the reasons to feel comfortable after setting a target of 240, a competitive total 20 years ago. But such target was a child’s play for Arjuna’s men as they won with eight wickets and 13 overs to spare. Ravi Shastri at the post match presentation asked Sachin what was a safe target against Sri Lanka? The Indian captain scratched his head, looked around and replied, ‘Maybe thousand!’ Such was the high esteem that the Sri Lankan team was held during their golden era.
On the same tour, Sachin was at the receiving end again as Sri Lanka posted a World Record 952 in the first Test at RPS. Sanath hammered a career best 340. Sachin went onto say, “I have not seen Don Bradman, but I have seen Sanath Jayasuriya!”
The camaraderie within that team was outstanding. All-rounder Upul Chandana was part of the World Cup squad, but didn’t play a single game. He was in fact picked to play the quarter-final against Pakistan in Faisalabad as the team management was convinced of England’s perceived weakness of playing wrist spin bowling. Chandana soon after learning that he was going to play, went up to Arjuna’s room the day before the game and urged the captain not to change the winning combination. That proved to be a blessing in disguise as Roshan Mahanama, the man who was supposed to miss the game, went onto post a crucial unbeaten 22 in what turned out to be a tricky run chase although Sri Lanka won with nearly ten overs to spare in the end.
Then during the semi-final against India in Calcutta, as the fans were hurling objects onto the field, Chandana was the man who was urging Arjuna to take Aravinda off from the deep from fielding duties as the team’s star batsman could get hurt. Chandana had come in as the substitute fielder for Mahanama, who was unwell and instead put himself up in the firing line opting to go out to field in the deep.
Fast bowler Ravindra Pushpakumara was another character. During the final, Asanka Gurusinha and Aravinda were rebuilding the innings after the openers had departed cheaply. The drinks break was fast approaching and Pushpakumara was supposed to go out to the field taking drinks. Coach Whatmore had plenty of advice for the two batsmen in the middle. So did Manager Duleep Mendis. The senior players chipped in and there were several pieces of advice for the two batsmen. As he was walking to the middle, carrying drinks, Pushpakumara thought that he might upset the momentum by telling too many things and he decided to stay quiet. The only thing he told the two batsmen was ‘Well played aiyya. Just keep going.’
It is glad news seeing the members of the World Cup winning squad doing so well in their chosen fields. While Arjuna is a powerful government minister, Aravinda, Sanath and Murali are all making huge strides in their respective businesses. Gurusinha lives in Australia while the likes of Marvan Atapattu, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Pushpakumara and Chaminda Vaas are successful coaches. Hashan is a loving husband and a caring father and his two sons are making significant progress in cricket representing Trinity College and S. Thomas’ College. Mahanama has just retired after a lengthy spell as a Match Referee while Kumar Dharmasena is cricket’s finest umpire at the moment. If The Ocean’s 11 Director Lewis Milestone needs a new story for his latest film, he could borrow some ideas by looking at Sri Lanka’s cricket team during the golden era.
This team gave Sri Lankans much joy over a period of four years from 1995 to 1998. It’s great to see them coming together reminiscing good old days.
ADDENDUM: A NOTE from SKANDAKUMAR, a former Ceylon-level cricketer, TV commentator, and a Member of BCCSL**
Yes, they were accorded a well-deserved grand reception in Melbourne on Saturday before an unprecedented crowd, where the applause was as intense and the music of champions even louder!!
Gentlemen All — whose humility and Integrity have made it possible for Srilankans to bask in reflected glory even twenty years later !!
Bless them all, Skanda
** Skandakumar also happens to be a Royalist and presently represents sri Lanka as High Commissioner for Australia and New Zealand; but these credentials are of lesser moment here than the line in blue.