17th March 1996 is perhaps the most important day for not only a Sri Lankan cricket fan but also for the entire Lankan nation. A Cricket World Cup win establishes the team’s authority on a global level. For any cricketer, it is the ultimate dream. The Sri Lankans cricketers realized it in the 1996 edition.
The subcontinent jointly hosted the sixth edition of the World Cup. India-Pakistan-Sri Lanka were the hosts for this cricket’s mega event, a tournament which had never been won by the hosting nation. Total 12 teams participated in this World Cup with Pakistan entering as the defending champion.
Ahead of the tournament, Australia and West Indies cricket team denied playing in Sri Lanka citing security concerns. The embarrassment hurt Sri Lanka, and they tried their best to ensure cricket but to no avail. ICC decided to award these matches to Sri Lanka, who now had four points in the tally even without playing.
The Sri Lankan Captain 33-year old Arjuna Ranatunga was one of the gutsiest cricketers the game has ever seen. He never took a step back, not even against the mighty Aussies and he had tremendous confidence in his players. 31-year old Arvinda De Silva was the other pillar on which Sri Lankan batting was standing. These two heroes later shared perhaps the greatest moment in their lives.
Starting on a confident note, Sri Lanka registered a six-wicket win against low-ranked Zimbabwe. They then defeated the mighty Indian team in a stellar chase. India scored 271/3 in their 50 overs. Sri Lanka then unleashed Jayasuriya who scored 79 runs off 76 balls, decimating the Indian bowlers. This innings would later impact the all-important toss result of the semi-final between these two teams.
Hapless Kenyan team fell in the claws of Lankan lions next as the African nation conceded the highest ever total in ODIs, 398. Sri Lanka brushed aside England in the Quarterfinal as Jayasuriya mauled them with his 44-ball 82 in the chase of 236, setting up the Semi-final clash against neighbors India.
The semifinal was an epic showdown. Reduced to 1/2 in the first over with both its opener gone, times were difficult for Sri Lanka. But the experienced batsmen came to the fore and inched Sri Lanka to a safe score of 251. The Indians crumbled on a track which started turning square and Sri Lanka made their way into their maiden World Cup final.
Winning the final against Australia would be the perfect revenge for the Sri Lankan team who was earlier embarrassed by them. Australia batted first in the final at Lahore and scored 241/7. Till then no team had won the World Cup chasing, Sri Lanka had to create history and that they did.
Another failure from openers meant that De Silva had to shoulder the team. Gurusinha with 65(99) provided momentum to the innings. Ranatunga and De Silva batted with sense and bravery to pull off one of the most heroic victories witnessed in the cricket world.
Before the tournament began, Sri Lanka was not favored by any of the pundits. Before 1996 World Cup, they had won only three out of their 24 completed World Cup matches. After the World Cup, they were one of the most feared teams in the world. With tremendous grit and undying determination to win, Sri Lanka showed the world that nothing is impossible.