The 1996 World Cup was a watershed moment for Sri Lanka in many ways. It was the first time that the country would co-host the tournament along with India and Pakistan. The team had a formidable group of players in Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Roshan Mahanama. At the top, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were rewriting the method of batting in ODIs with their aggression in the first 15 overs. The team stunned the world with their performances but their journey towards glory almost stumbled before it began. Before the World Cup, there was a bomb blast in Colombo which killed over 50 people. Looking at the security situation, Australia and West Indies refused to tour Colombo and Sri Lanka were awarded the games.
Thilanga Sumathipala, the president of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board, spoke in 2018 about the incident to Hindustan Times. “We had a meeting in Kolkata following the blast. We had signed for the World Cup and sponsors were on board. I was facing a huge challenge. So, Dalmiya put together a team consisting of India and Pakistan players and made the XI. He demonstrated amazing leadership,” Sumathipala said. With security assured, Sri Lanka played Zimbabwe in Colombo and they won the match by six wickets.
Sri Lanka made a big statement when they traveled to India for the league game against the favourites at the Feroz Shah Kotla. On an overcast Delhi morning, Sachin Tendulkar smashed 137 as India reached 271/3 but Sanath Jayasuriya smashed 79 and tore the Indian bowling apart as Sri Lanka won comfortably by six wickets. Aravinda de Silva smashed 145 in the last league game against Kenya as they notched up 398/5, which was then the highest team score in ODIs.
Having been undefeated in the whole tournament, Sri Lanka entered the quarterfinals against England high on confidence. In Faisalabad, England were restricted to 235/8 but Jayasuriya launched an unprecedented assault to smash 82 off 44 balls as Sri Lanka won by five wickets with more than nine overs to spare. In the high-voltage semi-final clash against India at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, Sri Lanka were in trouble at 35/3 but de Silva’s brilliant 66 and Mahanama’s solid 58 helped them recover. Some contributions from the tail helped Sri Lanka reach 251/8.
Tendulkar started off aggressively and when he was on 65 and with India on 98/1, it seemed the game would slip away from Sri Lanka. However, Tendulkar was stumped by Kaluwitharana off Jayasuriya and India proceeded to lose six wickets for 22 runs. At 120/8 and with defeat imminent, the crowd in Kolkata resorted to rioting and bottles were hurled. Clive Lloyd, the match referee, awarded the game to Sri Lanka and they reached the final for the first time.
Before the final, Ranatunga had said that he wanted the Australians in the final and he got it. In Lahore, Sri Lanka chose to bowl and Australia were in a good position at 137/1 with Mark Taylor scoring 74. However, de Silva changed the course of the match by removing Taylor for 74 and then denting the middle order at regular intervals to finish with three wickets. Australia managed 241/7 and they gave themselves a chance by removing Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana cheaply. However, Asanka Gurusinha tackled the bowlers brilliantly and along with de Silva, strung a 125-run stand for the third wicket. Gurusinha fell for a brilliant 58 but de Silva became the third player after Lloyd and Sir Viv Richards to hit a century in the final and along with Ranatunga, guided Sri Lanka closer to home. When Ranatunga guided Glenn McGrath’s short ball to third man for a boundary, Sri Lanka had achieved the impossible. They defeated Australia and clinched the World Cup by seven wickets.
The win not only put Sri Lanka on the cricketing map, it changed the very face of the country. They were now considered worthy opponents. After that, the country has gone on to win Asia Cups, the 2014 World T20, the 2002 Champions Trophy which was shared with India and they have been part of two ICC Cricket World Cup finals in 2007 and 2011. For all the success of Sri Lanka cricket in the modern era, the base was set by Ranatunga’s men in 1996.