Date : 26-02-2015

The story of the rise of Sri Lankan Cricket

Nuwan Ranasinghe 
Infinity Cricket Media

Feb 25th, 2015

Once minnows, now World Cup heavyweights; the journey of Sri Lanka’s cricket in the ICC Cricket World Cup has always had that flavour of a ‘feel good’ coming-of-age sports story, similar to that of Jamaica hosting an Olympic bobsled team. In their early years, they were written off as easy-beats and were seen as the ‘babies’ of international cricket, but as time wore on they would grow into the force that they have become today. I decided to take an in depth look at the history of Sri Lanka’s performance in the World Cup, what this tournament has meant for this vibrant little island and why this sport is so significant to the psyche of the Sri Lankan people.

There is no doubt that World Cup cricket holds great importance to the people of Sri Lanka. It was something that made us believe and have faith in the unity of our nation, and it was more often than not the glue which held us together during troubled and divided times. It would bring all of us as one for a common cause, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or language, and it would always give us hope for better times ahead. 1996, the year that Sri Lanka emerged from the shadows as a powerful force in international cricket by winning the World Cup for the first time, would prove to be a momentous occasion not only for cricket in the island itself but for the sport as a whole. The bigger Test match nations were now obliged to respect these ‘little Sri Lankans’, who had shown to the world that they were not so ‘little’ anymore.

However, what most people don’t know is that Sri Lanka has featured in every single cricket World Cup right from its inception in 1975. In those days, Sri Lanka were indeed genuine minnows who had not even yet received Test match status, and along with East Africa, they were the two Associate nations playing in the 8-nation Cricket World Cup in 1975. They played their first ever ODI match in that tournament against a star studded West Indies team featuring the likes of Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Andy Roberts and Lance Gibbs. The Windies proved to be too much for young Bandula Warnapura and his inexperienced side as Sri Lanka crashed to 86 all out. They put up a better show against Australia though, and despite losing again, their 276/4 in reply to the Aussies’ 328/5 was a solid effort featuring fighting knocks from silky smooth Sidath Wettimuny and the pugnacious Duleep Mendis. This game helped Sri Lanka earn some respectability from the Australians, and they managed to survive some hostile fast bowling, courtesy of a fired up Jeff Thompson and a rampant Dennis Lillee. There were no helmets back then, and Wettimuny and Mendis were soon rushed to hospital after copping bouncers to the head and chest, but they batted bravely to see Sri Lanka through. Despite their efforts, Sri Lanka crashed to a disappointing Round 1 exit.

The following World Cups all proved to be failed campaigns for the Sri Lanka. Despite this, the 1979 World Cup saw the island nation taste victory on the ODI arena for the first time in their cricket history, as they defeated India by 47 runs at Manchester, England. Wettimuny, Mendis and the classically technical Roy Dias all posted fifties to take Sri Lanka to a defendable 238/5. India started strongly, but soon collapsed to an embarrassing 191 all out, handing Sri Lanka their first ever ODI win. Once again, a Round 1 exit proved to be the end result as a heavy defeat to New Zealand and an abandoned match against the West Indies saw Sri Lanka leave prematurely from the 1979 World Cup.

1983, 1987 and 1992 all showed similar signs of previous campaigns. The Sri Lankans would show that they had the skill and flair to compete with the bigger Test match nations, but they were just not consistent enough. It seemed as though the minnow status was forever branded upon Sri Lanka, who many believed were not even good enough to play Test cricket at the time. However, it was during these years that the likes of Aravinda De Silva, a young Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, and a tubby Arjuna Ranatunga grew and matured into the street fighter cricketers that would eventually take Sri Lanka to World Cup victory. Vaas and Muralitharan were only in their early 20s too, and under the guidance of coach Dav Whatmore and Ranatunga’s belligerent leadership, 1996 would prove to be the year they would finally arrive. De Silva was indeed the man of the hour in that glorious final against the Australians in Lahore, as he caressed his way to an impeccable 107 off 128 balls, complemented with the three wickets he took bowling his canny off spinners. It was a night no Sri Lankan fan would ever forget in a hurry.

The 1999 World Cup campaign was a complete farce compared to the euphoria of 1996. An embarrassing Round 1 exit for the defending world champions, controversies within the cricket board and major dressing room politics saw a massive upheaval within the make-up of the Sri Lankan cricket team. The heroes of yesteryear were now considered too old and unfit to carry the Lions’ forward. Ranatunga, Hathurusingha and Mahanama all ended their careers promptly after Sri Lanka’s embarrassing 1999 World Cup campaign as the management looked to inject more youth into the side and focus on enhancing professionalism within the team. The times of Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Muralitharan, Vaas, Malinga, Jayasuriya and plenty more players who would soon become household names, was about to come.

The World Cups heading into the new millennium saw a more powerful, athletic and rejuvenated Sri Lankan cricket team. Minnows no more, Sri Lanka were gaining success in Test cricket as well as on the ODI stage. Muralitharan was turning into a world beater, Vaas was becoming Sri Lanka’s own Glenn McGrath, and Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Jayasuriya could take on any bowling with their exciting batsmanship. 2003 saw Sri Lanka fight hard until they bowed out in the semi-final against a persistent Australian side that would go on to become the World Champions that year. 2007 again saw Sri Lanka verse this familiar foe, but this time in the final. Top knocks from Sangakkara and Jayasuriya weren’t enough to take Sri Lanka over the line, as Adam Gilchrist’s brutal assault proved to be too much. Finalists once again in the 2011 edition of the World Cup, high hopes were placed upon the Lions’ as they took on the might of India at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. A fighting century from Mahela Jayawardene wasn’t enough to take Sri Lanka to World Cup glory as Gautham Gambhir and cool cat MS Dhoni chased the Lions’ total with ease. Looking now to shake off this ‘runners-up’ tag that’s haunted them in the last few tournaments, Sri Lanka will be hoping to go one better and claim the title again in the 2015 edition for the second time since that amazing night in Lahore, 1996.

For a little island with such diminutive people, Sri Lanka has achieved a lot in this funny game called cricket. More importantly, it is how cricket has affected the nature of Sri Lankan people that is most prominent in understanding why this game has such gravity upon the island nation. As an ardent Sri Lankan cricket fan myself, I believe we are a unique bunch of supporters. Keep in mind, that we are not the same as fans who support India – yes, we may share that similar passion and excitement, but the Sri Lankan cricket fan is a much more distinctive character altogether. Unlike in India, cricket does not have that zealous following here in Sri Lanka. Political unrest, violence and a 30-year civil war has taught Sri Lankans that there are indeed much more important things to life than cricket. We instead see this game as our release, our enjoyment and our way to celebrate and unwind when the going gets tough. Cricket is a party and a festive occasion for us. Win or lose, we look up to our cricketers as heroes and champions; in our hearts they remain our brothers, sons, friends and family. We know they are still human beings at the end of the day, and their houses will always remain intact, whether or not they bring the World Cup home. They show us what Sri Lanka is capable of when we unite together, set aside our differences and fight for a common cause. They are the embodiment of what being a true Sri Lankan is.

As Sri Lanka sets off on another exciting cricket World Cup campaign, I wish them good luck and hope that they will give their best effort to bring home the coveted trophy.

Nuwan Ranasinghe is Infinity Cricket Media's Sri Lankan correspondent.