Exclusive: 1996 World Cup win brought the whole nation together, says Aravinda de Silva

Dubai - As Sri Lanka celebrates 25 years of their World Cup win in 1996, batting legend De Silva reflects on an occasion that brought joy to a war-torn country


Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Wed 24 Mar 2021, 12:35 PM

Last updated: Wed 24 Mar 2021, 12:49 PM

Facing eleven inspired Indians and a hundred thousand boisterous rival supporters at the Eden Gardens, he showed serene composure. There was no gum-chewing swagger to bring back memories of a certain Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.

But that day, Aravinda de Silva walked into the arena like a boxer with an invincible aura. A supreme competitor that would not be deterred by the early loss of Sri Lanka’s two murderous openers -- Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana – in that 1996 World Cup semifinal, after being put into bat by an Indian team that had been riding a wave of euphoria, having beaten fierce rivals Pakistan in an enthralling quarterfinal battle in Bangalore.

But that day, eleven talented Indians, backed by a hundred thousand fans at the Eden Gardens, would fail to douse Aravinda’s fire.

Aravinda was carrying the flame of anger of a Sri Lankan team that would not be cowed into submission by a few early blows. For, that fire had been burning in every soul of that Arjuna Ranatunga-led Sri Lankan team for a while.

The Lankans had felt humiliated by the treatment meted out to Muttiah Muralitharan months before that World Cup, when Australian umpire Darrell Hair controversially no-balled the young off-spinner for ‘throwing’ in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

What followed next was a response that would resonate around the world, transcending sporting boundaries.

A team representing a country torn by ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rallied behind their prodigious Tamil spinner.

Bound by the thread of a rare spirit, they were ready to fight the injustice and show the world that Sri Lanka were no longer a small cricket country that had long been neglected by the big boys of the game.

So that day at the Eden, Aravinda launched a stunning counter-attack – a 47-ball 66 that saw sublime off drives and emphatic pulls – to set the tone for Sri Lanka’s ascendancy and an Indian humiliation.

Four days later, on March 17, 1996, they would go on to humiliate Australia in the final as Aravinda conjured another man-of-match performance with a supreme hundred and three wickets with his part-time off-spin.

Now 25 years after that glorious triumph and a couple of days after the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had hosted a silver jubilee party for that team in Colombo, Aravinda, the wondrous shot-maker who could destroy bowling attacks in the blink of an eye, was thoughtful and modest when Khaleej Times rang him up for an interview.

It’s been 25 years since that World Cup win. How does it feel when you look back?

I just feel very happy to be part of it. It’s every cricketer’s dream to win the World Cup. It was very special. It changed Sri Lankan cricket, so it was something very special for all of us.

Was it extra special because the final win came against Australia in Lahore? Relations between the two teams were tensed after the Murali incident and also they refused to play the league match of that World Cup in Sri Lanka over security fears…

Yes, you can say that. Also, you know, that team (Australia), they were the dominant team of that decade (1990s). Obviously, beating Australia in such a big match was something that I always wanted to be a part of. So beating them in the final was very special.

Your innings in the semifinal after Sri Lanka lost two early wickets ranks among the greatest counter-attacking knocks of all time. Did you go in with a plan to counter-attack?

I think I reacted to that moment. It was a great opportunity and a great moment that I would always cherish very much in my life. Yes, there were 100,000 spectators at the stadium and there were probably another 100,000 outside the stadium. Then losing two early wickets and me going out there to bat, that was a moment I would always cherish. I would always cherish that moment when I went out and took on the challenge.

Your semifinal knock, considering the circumstances, and the century (107 not out off 124 balls) in the final came again after Sri Lanka had lost two early wickets against Australia, chasing 242. Those two knocks must be very close to your heart…

Yes, because it came in the World Cup semifinal and the final. And scoring a hundred in a World Cup final is always special. Then taking those three wickets with the ball in the final was also special. But having said that, it was a great team effort. One person cannot win a tournament like that all alone. Of course, I was the man of the match (in the semifinal and final). But cricket is always a team game. Everybody contributed and helped the team achieve the ultimate goal.

Was the Sri Lankan team surprised by the support they got in the final? It seemed the whole Gaddafi stadium was backing Sri Lanka on March 17, 1996…

Yes, I remember not just Lahore, but it felt like the entire country (Pakistan) was supporting us in the final. And we being the underdogs against Australia in the final, so to receive that kind of support was amazing. You know compared to that Australian team, we were a young side, so I am sure that also played a huge part (in Pakistan’s support) during that final.

Barring the two failures in the semifinals and final, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana were electrifying in the first 15 overs…

I think in the entire tournament we changed the entire approach to batting when it comes to the first 15 overs, giving a new dimension to one-day cricket. And it was established during that World Cup by Romesh and Sanath.

Talking about your own batting, you were obviously such a good player until the 1996 World Cup. But after the World Cup success, you became so prolific that you ended your career as one of the most iconic players of all time. What was the key?

I think it was the 1995 season in county cricket (at Kent) that changed me. I realised the kind of ability and talent I had. And the most important thing is I had the belief in my ability. So I think that really made the difference from 1995 onwards. When I look back, I had the exposure to try out things, and know more about my strengths and weaknesses, and it really turned my fortunes around.

Coming back to that World Cup win, it brought so much joy to Sri Lanka, a country that had suffered so much due to the ethnic conflict…

Yes, that was something very special because, you know, the country was going through a lot. So obviously that World Cup win made people so happy. It was also something very, very encouraging and special to know that despite the problems, the differences, the anger and all that, that World Cup brought the whole nation together. So that was something very special for us.

Finally, let’s talk about Arjuna Ranatunga, the inspirational captain who masterminded that World Cup win, few months after he got the team to rally behind Muralitharan in the no-ball incident…

Arjuna gave confidence to all the young players. It was a very young team and Arjuna basically changed the way we played cricket. We started believing in our ability. So what he did as the captain, instilling belief in a young team, was something special. Without any doubt, he deserved all the praise he received for the World Cup win as a leader. Also, he is a very humble human being. I think what he did for Sri Lanka cricket, the whole cricket fraternity in the world should appreciate it. And, of course, the way he supported Murali, it helped him become mentally stronger to cope with that situation. I think how Arjuna led the team and how he supported Murali in that incident as the captain, these are the lessons to be learned for the entire world.

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