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The night the tiny island of Sri Lanka was top of the world

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Roar Guru
17th March, 2020
7

Sri Lanka was going through harrowing times.

The decades-long civil war had reared its ugly head again, while the cricket team itself could barely afford a team meal or their laundry bill on their previous overseas tour of Australia, which took place months before the 1996 World Cup.

However, on the night of March 17, a typical Arjuna Ranatunga late cut off the bowling of Glenn McGrath raced to the boundary and Sri Lankan cricket had its place in World Cup folklore.

Considered a minnow since they claimed international status, it was finally Sri Lanka’s day in the sun. Or, to be more accurate, their night under the pouring rain of Lahore, with the heavens opening moments after Ranatunga lifted the trophy.

The rain was almost symbolic, washing away decades of pain for a country that has had more than its fair share. The brutality of war and the tragedy of national disaster is something that has been felt by many a Sri Lankan, be they Tamil or Sinhalese.

But at Galle Face Green, a traditional meeting point overlooking the Indian Ocean in the capital of Colombo, there were scenes of jubilation on that March night, as tens of thousands danced and sang their way across the seafront.

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For those who had migrated overseas for a better life, pictures of their triumphant team beaming through on the TV allowed many to finally make peace with their heritage.

Cricket was always a unifying force, and winning the World Cup with a team made up of Sinhalese and Tamils was crucial to healing the deep wounds that existed.

The day started off with Ranatunga sending Australia into bat. Mark Taylor got away early but Aravinda de Silva reined the number one team in with three wickets and two important catches.

241 seemed a decent score on a moist wicket that was surrounded by the threat of rain.

Australia dismissed dynamic opening duo Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana to have Sri Lanka struggling at 2-23.

Then in strolled de Silva, the man for the big occasion.

Often criticised for not realising his potential, ‘Mad Max’ as he was known stood up to be counted. Along with Asanka Gurusinha, whose clutch half-century is often forgotten in the shadow of de Silva’s brilliance, the Lankans took control.

A 125-run partnership was ended with Gurusinha’s dismissal, but in came captain cool Ranatunga, who looked more like a tuk-tuk driver than an international cricketer.

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A world-class bowling line up, led by McGrath and Shane Warne, could do little as de Silva completed his century and Ranatunga tortured his old nemesis Warne. The highlight was a four and a six off consecutive balls, as Sri Lanka closed in on victory.

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A trademark off-drive from de Silva off Damien Fleming levelled the scores at the end of the 47th over, fittingly leaving Ranatunga the honour of hitting the winning runs.

The chaos that ensued prevented Sri Lanka from a much-deserved lap of honour, but the celebrations when they arrived back home with the trophy firmly in their grasp more than made up for that.

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It was years ago, but the memory is one every Sri Lankan will forever cherish.

For one day at least, the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka was on top of the world.