Tanya Aldred in The Spin,8 October 2018 where the title is “How Sri Lanka’s magical 1996 cocktail paved the way for Morgan’s men”
As England and Sri Lanka prepare for the five-match one-day series starting on Wednesday in Dambulla, a warm-up of sorts for the World Cup now less than eight months away, it feels the right time to stumble backwards 22 years, to one of cricket’s greatest stories.
On 17 March 1996, in the sultry atmosphere of Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka’s captain, lifted the World Cup high into the air. No one could quite believe it. Sri Lanka, the baby brother of the Asian block, the international whipping boys, had popped out of the hat, brandishing a party popper, a grin and a new kick-ass way of playing the game.
Even by the standards of the time, when money was not swilling around cricket to the same extent, Sri Lanka were a rag-tag bunch. They numbered an assortment of part-time salesmen and clerical workers, many who could not afford more than one pair of shoes each, and whose cricket board was so broke it had to rely on desperate pleas for donations to keep the whole thing from going under. Sri Lanka, only 14 years into their Test career, seemed to be going nowhere fast.
Moreover, they had just returned from a tumultuous tour of Australia, where they were resoundingly thrashed, relentlessly sledged, had to cope with accusations of ball-tampering (a charge the ICC later dropped) and the umpire Darrell Hair calling their young spinner Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing at the MCG on Boxing Day. On top of that, the country was still in the throes of civil war and, with just weeks to go before the start of the World Cup, which Sri Lanka was cohosting with Pakistan and India, a bomb went off in Colombo, killing 91 people and injuring more than a thousand. West Indies and Australia immediately withdrew from their games scheduled to be held on the island.
And yet … the show went on. Sri Lanka were awarded the forfeited matches but they won every game they played anyway, with a magic cocktail of pinch-hitting openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, potent spinners, including a young Murali, a powerful middle order and bucket loads of confidence force-fed to them by their swaggering, confrontational, controversial, cock-of-the-walk captain Ranatunga. In the opening rounds, there was an easy win over Zimbabwe before India were given a hiding, despite a century from Sachin Tendulkar, and then, against Kenya, a revolution: Sri Lanka hit 398 for five – a World Cup record that lasted 11 years and is still the fifth highest total in the tournament.
They moved on to thrash England in the quarter-finals with nine overs and two balls to spare. They were awarded the semi-final by default when, with India on the brink of defeat, the Eden Gardens crowd rioted in disgust. In the final, they won the toss, inserted Australia, and spanked them by seven wickets. As Telford Vice memorably wrote: “It marks the spot on the map of cricket’s journey through history where East looked West in the eye and did not blink. Instead, East winked and said: ‘Try to keep up.’”
However, you cannot live on fairytales, and as the World Cup approaches, the upper hand lies elsewhere – with a plumper, better-resourced nation. Most remarkably, to those who have watched England’s recent World Cup campaigns through barely perceivable cracks between their fingers, it lies here, with Eoin Morgan’s side, who will have home advantage in trying to win England men’s first 50-over World Cup.
The win/loss ratio of both countries since that quarter-final in 1996 is fairly even, Sri Lanka have won 313 of 609 one-day internationals and England 231 of 469. But break down the figures further and you see how the two sides’ stock has changed.
Since the 2015 World Cup when England disastrously failed to make it out of the preliminary stages, and Sri Lanka were knocked out in the quarter-finals, England have won 48 matches out of 72; Sri Lanka 22 of 71, including losing 30 out of 40 since January last year. England are ranked the No 1 ODI team in the world; Sri Lanka lie eighth.
Sri Lanka come into the series on pitches that should favour them, fresh from a humiliating experience in the Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates, where they were booted out in the first round after defeats by Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Angelo Mathews was asked to relinquish the captaincy for “fitness” reasons. When he refused, he was sacked.
The team are raw, unsettled and have found it difficult to soak up the retirements of players of the stature of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan – three of the four leading Sri Lanka ODI run-scorers of all time.
England, on the other hand, are flying, fresh from a 2-1 ODI series victory in the summer over their nearest rivals, India. In the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup they ripped up the manual, sacked the coach, dispatched a few players to the Indian Premier League – and just became better in every area. Now they have attacking openers, a powerful middle order, talented late-order hitting, good spinners and no fear – Ranatunga’s 1996 manual still proving its worth today.
• This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.