Despite the undoubted romance and popularity of the result – a win for previously unheralded Sri Lanka – the Wills World Cup of 1996 was not an especially memorable event.
The reasons for this were largely administrative, bureaucratic or political.
There were twelve competing teams, more than ever before. These were the nine Test sides, including the most recent entrant, Zimbabwe, plus three associate members, Kenya, Holland and the United Arab Emirates. These were divided into two groups of six, with the top four in each group qualifying in quarter-finals.
The result was fairly predictable. The group stage started on 14 February and finished on 6 March. It thus took the best part of a month to determine that Zimbabwe, Kenya, Holland and the UAE would not be appearing in the quarterfinals.
The World Cup Committee – to whom the ICC had delegated all responsibility – decided that it would be a good idea if all the games scheduled for India – 17 in total- were to take place in a different city. So there was a lot of tedious travel for the players. There were three host nations – Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as India. But right at the start Australia and the West Indies announced that they were not prepared to play in Colombo for security reasons. Those games were forfeited and in the end only two games were played on the island.
But Sri Lanka were undoubtedly the stars of the tournament. The Group A match against India in Delhi showed what they were capable of. India made 271 for three (Sachin Tendulkar 137). After three overs Sri Lanka were 42 for no wicket. They reached 50 in the fifth when Romesh Kaluwitharana was out. His opening partner, Sanath Jayasuriya, made 79 off 76 balls. That does indicate that he slowed down a bit and indeed Sri Lanka fell behind the asking rate for a while but captain Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillekeratne got them home with an unbroken fifth wicket stand of 131. The formula was set. Seven specialist batsmen, one of whom, Jayasuriya, bowled slow left arm, and another, Kaluwitharana, kept wicket. Four specialist bowlers, two of whom, Muttiah Muralitharan and Charminda Vass, were world class or approaching it. Jayasuriya was nominated the “Most Valued Player of the Tournament “. (One thing the sixth World Cup had in common with the modern game was an obsession with money: hence the quarterfinals.)
Of course having two byes in the group stage made thing even easier: Sri Lanka romped to the top of Group A and then walloped a hapless England in the quarter final in Faisalabad. (Jayasuriya mace 82 off 44 balls as Sri Lanka, chasing 236, romped to a five wicket win with ten overs to spare.)
England had appeared in every previous semi-final and in three finals but this side, under Mike Atherton, and managed by the 64-year old Ray Illingworth, was out of its depth. They managed to beat the UAE and Holland.
The other side that made all the running at the start of the campaign was, not for the first or last time, South Africa. They won all their Group B games but were surprisingly beaten in the quarterfinal in Karachi by the West Indies. Brian Lara made 111 in 94 balls and the spinners Roger Harper and Jimmy Adams did the damage when South Africa batted. The result was all the more surprising because in a genuine sensation in Group B, West indies had lost to Kenya by 73 runs in Poona.
The holders, Pakistan, processed easily enough through the group stage but came up against India in the quarterfinal in Bangalore and as usual in the World Cup, lost (by 39 runs). As was normal in these circumstances, captain Wasim Akram’s effigy was burned in various cities back home.
In the fourth quarterfinal in Madras New Zealand must have thought they had done enough when they made 286 for nine (Chris Harris 130, captain Lee Germon 89). Australia knocked them off for the loss of four wickets with more than two overs to spare, Mark Waugh making his third century of the tournament.
India played Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens, Calcutta before a crowd of 100,000. Despite the wonderful display by the Sri Lankans this was the lowest point of the tournament, perhaps of any World Cup.
Mohammed Azharuddin put Sri Lanka in, on the basis that they liked to chase. This looked like a good decision when Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana were both out in the first over. Aravinda de Silva maintained the aggressive policy and scored 66 off 47 balls. The middle order of Ranatunga and Roshan Mahanama maintained the pressure and Sri Lanka made 251 for four. (Tendulkar took two for 34 in his ten overs.)
Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar took India to 98 for one but there was then an extraordinary collapse, seven wickets falling for 22 (Jayasuriya three for 12 in seven overs).
These days when a game is not going the way Indian spectators want it to go – as in the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan at The Oval in 2017 – they just leave. That is rude and rather ignorant but at least it doesn’t do any actual harm. Here it was different: they set fire to the stadium. Match referee Clive Lloyd took the players off and eventually awarded the match to Sri Lanka.
The second semi-final, between Australia and the West Indies in Mohali, was the most interesting game of the tournament. Mark Taylor, Australia’s captain, opted to bat but before long he, the Waugh twins and Ricky Ponting had been dismissed for a grand total of four; Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop seemed unplayable. But Stuart Law and Michael Bevan stood firm and they finished on 207 for eight.
West Indies’ innings was a sort of reverse of this. When Brian Lara was out for 45 in the 42nd over the score was 165 for two with Shiv Chanderpaul well set and being joined by captain Richie Richardson. But it all went horribly wrong. Three wickets fell to Shane Warne while six runs were scored. As Damien Fleming prepared to bowl the final over West Indies needed 10 runs with two wickets left. But Richardson was still there. He hit the first ball for four. He then had a brain fade m set off for an absurd single – in every sense – and Ambrose was run out. Courtney Walsh was bowled and Australia had won by four runs.
The final took place between Australia and Sri Lanka at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. It was the administrators’ last little joke at the players’ expense. The stadium had never hosted a day-night match before. Nobody could be sure what conditions would be like once the lights came on and in particular what the impact of the dew would be. Ranatunga wasn’t going to die wondering; when he won the toss he decided to field.
Vaas removed Mark Waugh early on but Taylor and Ponting played fluently while Sri Lanka’s seamers were on. Once the spinners came on, though, it was a different story. In a spell of five overs de Silva took two for 19. Ranatunga handled his resources shrewdly and the fielding was excellent. The Australian middle order couldn’t get going at all. Taylor hit eight fours and a six in his 74; his teammates hit five fours between them.
Still, 241 for seven was not negligible, certainly not when Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana had both been dismissed with only 23 on the board. But de Silva and the experienced Asanka Gurusinha gradually took control. The dew made the ball wet for the spinners, Warne and Mark Waugh, as Ranatunga had anticipated. Catches went down.
The superb de Silva finished with 107 not out. Appropriately the sly old fox Ranatunga was with him at the end with 47 not out.
Sri Lanka won by seven wickets. It was the first time a side batting second in a World Cup final had won.
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