Third place article in Pen-tathlon Article Writing Competition by Niruthikka Sritharan- University of Moratuwa
Hands on their heads, eyes all wide, Sri Lankans exclaimed in exasperation as Sanath Jayasuriya decided to go for another run between the wickets. Surely one couldn’t doubt the strong arms of the tall and mighty Glenn McGrath, who had then, at that fateful moment, hurled the ball across to the field to the wicket keeper. Jayasuriya dived in to get past the crease line, just as the ball was smashed into the wicket. Decision was still pending. We couldn’t afford to lose this man, the player of the tournament, at the expense of this run that bore no significance. It was just the 10th ball of the innings. Heaven would have resonated with 18.37 million prayers sincerely requesting for a not out. But maybe, the heart throb, at seeing one of our finest batsmen walk out of this important match with a meagre sum of 9 runs, had to be dealt with so that we could later on relish, the iconic triumph of our nation, all the more.
A historic sporting event could easily serve to be a remarkable ambassador for peace and unity. The turn of events since the inception of 1996 wasn’t certainly in favour of the nation. Owing to the explosions at the Central Bank in January, 1996, Australia and West Indies flatly refused to send their teams to Sri Lanka, stating it unsafe. This was quite a humiliation, as Sri Lanka co-hosted a cricket world cup tournament for the first time. Therefore, this well-deserved monumental victory, especially one against Australia, ironically was all that was needed to regain that sense of national pride.
The sun was up all right as Arjuna Ranatunga and Mark Taylor made the toss to start off this epic final chapter of the Wills World Cup 1996. The Sri Lankan captain won the toss – a sign undoubtedly proclaiming the oncoming success. Die hard cricket fans back at home stared open-mouthed in absolute horror, as our smart captain apprised the officials of his unorthodox decision of fielding first for this final match of the tournament. History books would tell you that no side had ever won the trophy by batting last in the World Cup finals. Perhaps, these unconventional moves were the ones that added icing to the cake and kept eyes glued to the television on the 17th of March, 1996. Despite all the anxiety creeping in, the Sri Lankan team’s faith in its prolific batsmen to chase any total, thrilled the Sri Lankan supporters.
Thus, the phenomenal match kicked off with two dynamic Australian batsmen Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh on strike. They played with their incorrigible touch of confidence earning many fours, much to the dismay of the Sri Lankans. This match sure had a boost for Sri Lanka and a blow for Australia in store, as Waugh’s reply to Chaminda Vass’ 1st ball of the 7th over led the ball straight into the open hands of Jayasuriya. Hues of red, yellow, orange and green greeted the cameras focused on the spectators gathered to cheer for Sri Lanka at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, Pakistan. This exuberance is well justified if one spares some time to note that this tough man Mark Waugh is one zestful player who had scored three centuries in this tournament alone.
However, the inexplicably talented Australians recovered from this blow expeditiously. Ricky Ponting and Taylor assimilated the tempo of the Sri Lankan bowlers. They leveraged it to their advantage. Runs were coming up quickly, undeniably too quickly for Sri Lanka’s liking. Anyhow, our fielders played with an equal valour. Roshan Mahanama and Muttiah Muralitharan frenetically sprinted across the field, obstructing balls from crossing the boundaries. But, for Sri Lanka, this situation wasn’t exactly felicitous. Lines of anguish etched the faces of players and viewers as overs, void of wickets, whizzed by.
Then our vice-captain, Aravinda de Silva, took charge. He tactfully lured captain Taylor into hammering a ball on a trajectory leading to the safe hands of Jayasuriya. This wicket, at the run score of 137 in the 27th over, was all that needed to revive the players and the citizens of Sri Lanka. Following the jubilance elicited by this momentous wicket, things started falling into place for Sri Lanka. This match definitely did live up to its expectations. The highly sought-after unpredictability prevailed. The final chapter was interspersed with wickets at perfect timings. Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Stuart Law and Ian Healy were all sent out one after the other. A mere glance at the Australian score sheet would inform us that the true hero had been none other than de Silva. He had been involved in virtually all the wickets by either bowling splendidly or catching balls with profound dexterity.
Amidst the mighty roars echoing off the gigantic walls of the stadium, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana took their positions at the two ends of the pitch to commence their chase after 241 runs. In face of the very unfortunate run out of Jayasuriya, Asanka Gurusinha took the game on assiduously along with Kaluwitharana. But this duo didn’t last long as Kaluwitharana regrettably slammed a ball by Fleming towards Bevan, waiting to pounce on it. Sri Lankan hearts sank. With hands clasped in trepidation, they implored the players to work miracles on the field.
The man of the match, de Silva, surely was the answer for the silent plea of the nation. A beautiful partnership flourished between him and Gurusinha. They approached the game with a lot of sense. The Australian fielders – who are well known to catch almost anything in the air – fumbled greatly that eventful day. While some choose to term this as a great luck to the Lankans, I discerned this as the very first indication of our victory. The formidable opponents were intimidated by the maturity with which our batsmen tackled the game.
The 2nd ball of the 31st over, hammered by Gurusinha, didn’t manage to quite get past the butter fingers. However, every cloud has a silver lining. Nails of fans, engrossed in the game, continued to be bitten, in delight rather than anxiety as our captain stepped in to bat alongside our vice-captain, until the very end of the innings.
Sri Lanka had won just a mere handful of four matches amongst the numerous ones played in the past five ICC Cricket World Cup tournaments, since its birth in 1975. Therefore, tears of immense pride glistened in the eyes of Sri Lankans, to see this dynamic duo hammer away countless balls beyond the fence. The team’s attitude reflected the remarkable feat they had pulled off. In congruous with the fact that de Silva entered this field as the 4th batsman, he slammed a total of 13 fours, engraving his name as the 3rd batsman to have scored a century in a World Cup final match.
Celebrations had begun long before the official end at the 2nd ball of 47th over of this enthralling game, with 7 wickets to spare. The mighty Lankans had pursued the game with style. The trophy shimmered in the light of dusk falling rapidly in Lahore. The beautiful Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, conferred on the captain and his boys the 1996 World Cup trophy, the only of its kind to be attained by our country as yet.
Sri Lankans could decidedly go on for hours about the thrill and glory, just as the insurmountable tension they had felt, as they savoured every moment of this spectacular match. They had witnessed history unfold in front of their eyes. I am not fortunate enough to have witnessed it then. Nevertheless, every time I sit to watch a replay of this match on YouTube, as a proud Sri Lankan, my heart skips a beat when they emerge victorious as magnificently as the lions they are.