In a chilly English summer of 2009, a late night discussion with one of my Sri Lankan friends was all about the 1996 World Cup, and how the island nation and it's cricketers wrote one of the most surreal sporting stories of all time. The conversation moved towards the final, and my mate made one of the most telling statements on the topic. He said, "If Asanka Gurusinha was an Indian, he'd now be worshipped as 'God' or celebrated as a national treasure." I asked him why, and he quipped, "'Gura' (as he's popularly known in Sri Lanka) is a forgotten hero, machang. People in our country see more value in Aravinda, Sanath aiya and even Arjuna aiya". I felt a touch cheated by that statement, given that Gurusinha played one of the most important innings in Sri Lankan cricket history on March 17th at Lahore, yet never got the same recognition as his peers did, for reasons I will elaborate upon. Indeed, Gura was never in the same league as his erstwhile colleagues in Aravinda or even Jayasuriya, but I'll stick my neck out and say this that even today, he'd be by far the gutsiest cricketer/batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced and that statement goes back 100 years of the country's (then Ceylon) cricketing history.
Today, that very man, Asanka Pradeep Gurusinha is the Group Sales Manager of "Trader Classifieds", a magazine publishing firm in Melbourne, Australia - a city that would become his new home almost eight one-dayers he represented his country of birth in, after the infamous World Cup triumph. And like a thorough gentleman, he gave up the game he loved in protest against one of the earliest cases "conflict of interest" (a familiar term in Indian cricket today) where the Ranatunga family was virtually calling the shots in Sri Lankan cricket, both in administrative and cricketing terms. "I wasn’t a happy man, but even today, I think I took the correct decision and I have no regrets over quitting international cricket. I could have played for many more years, but I didn’t enjoy it anymore and thats why I left Sri Lanka for Australia," he tells me. Gura had already signed a two-year contract with North Melbourne as a player-coach and just as he was dropped for the remaining two matches of a tri-nation tournament in Sharjah, he knew his time was up.
The 1996 World Cup triumph was not just an important moment in Sri Lanka's cricketing history, but equally critical for the country per-se, because it ensured that the island nation was finally on the world map for the right reasons - coming in the heady backdrop of a civil war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government, so much so that two teams - Australia and the West Indies did not travel to that country and forfeited the game. And surely, it wasn't a "fluke" as many detractors of that World Cup winning team seem to believe. Even the likes of Kapil Dev made statements like "Sri Lanka will never win a Test series overseas (after they beat India in their first ever Test series at home)" . But Gurusinha disagrees vehemently and points to the fact that 1996 was a culmination of a process that began two years earlier. He tells me, "The process started in 1994 when we went to New Zealand and won a Test series away from home. Dav Whatmore joined the side thereafter and changed the way we approached our cricket. His immediate emphasis was to make us a stronger and fitter side, and the results were there to see." Gurusinha also recounts the tour to Pakistan which followed and Sri Lanka's success there (winning both the Test and ODIs by a margin of 2-1) as an integral catalyst towards the pre-World Cup push. "We went to Sharjah immediately, won that tournament (also featuring the West Indies and Pakistan) by playing good cricket and that tournament perhaps set the tone for things to follow." When Gura talks about good cricket, it wasn't exactly about the results he was referring to, but the fact that the team derived confidence from a run-chase of 334 runs, where they agonizingly fell short by 4 runs, but a game that perceptively changed the way oppositions saw the Lankans for the next three years - a team to be feared when chasing totals. Then, the turning point - that Australian summer of 1995-96, when certain off-field events (Murali-Darrell Hair no-ball fiasco) got the team together, and proved to be a major catalyst in the events to follow three-four months later. "The Murali incident changed everything. It united us like never before, and everyone wanted to play good cricket and were determined to do well in the World Cup. The episode notwithstanding, again, we played well in Australia, reaching the final of the World Series which played a big role in where we ended up," he says. Make no mistake, the Murali episode went a long long way in setting a mental agenda within the Lankans as to how badly they wanted to win the World Cup, and ironically, as Romesh Kaluwitharana told me once, "...we were secretly wanting to meet Australia in the final, not just because of the Murali incident, but they let us down by not visiting our country. The only justice could be when we played them in the final and beat them." And beat, they did.
In the larger scorecard scheme of things, that night at Lahore (World Cup final) belonged to Sri Lanka's finest contemporary exponent of batsmanship - Aravinda de Silva. So much was his determination to win the match for Sri Lanka, that unusually, he was padded up during the lunch break, sitting in one corner of the dressing room - with a focused glint in his eyes. Yes, he deservedly stole the show with what was one of the better one-day innings you'd see in a World Cup final, but without Gurusinha's solidity in defence and cricketing awareness, we'd never have seen that knock. "When I walked in to bat, Sanath was run out for 9 and soon, Kalu followed cheaply at 6. Ari joined me and our only goal was to bat the fifty overs, and we believed we could win the game.", Gurusinha says. Cricketing wisdom meant, Gurusinha realized Aravinda's importance to the run-chase and even as pressure was mounting on the Sri Lankans, decided to take it on himself, and that counter-attack included an over where he took 12 runs off Shane Warne, a moment considered by many as a turning point in the game. Gurusinha recounts, "I told Ari to stay there till the finish and that I will go after the bowlers, because my role was to lay the foundation for some of our other batsmen to come and even after I got out, our two best middle-order batsmen were there and they finished the game off for us." and that brilliant 65 off 99 balls was Gurusinha's moment of deserved glory.
Fourteen years later, just as the 2011 World Cup begins, Gurusinha believes Sri Lanka can repeat their historic triumph this time too, with his own interesting analysis. "In 1996, we were a batting heavy team and our top seven had collectively played around 1000 ODIs, which was something unheard of back then. Today, I think our strengths lie in bowling and our batting isn't exactly strong enough. Once Mahela and Sangakkara get out, there is not much depth in the batting like the way we had back then. Sri Lanka have good form going for them now, having won in Australia, but the Aussies aren't playing great cricket now," he says. He also reckons Thilan Samaraweera's inclusion is important as it brings the much required stability into the batting order, in the event of a collapse. The only area for concern for Sri Lanka, according to Gurusinha is the lack of batting all-rounders. He says, "Our 1996 team had batsmen who were good bowlers and could come on and bowl at any time of the game. Sanath and Aravinda brought so much to the team through their bowling, and I think Aravinda was a deadly bowler on helpful wickets, someone people took lightly and got out to. The current team has Dilshan, but I don't think he's as good as Aravinda." But, he expects the Lankans to make the semi-finals along with India, England and one of Australia and South Africa. "Ideally, it should be an India vs Sri Lanka final, but I will tell you something about India. In the World Cup 1996 semi-final, I thought Mohammad Azharuddin was thinking more about our strengths than his own team's. He feared our ability to chase totals and put us into bat on a newly relaid wicket, which worked in our favour," he says before quickly adding, "I think this current team is a very good team with a lot of promise. But, for some odd reason they panic at home playing in front of big crowds in major tournaments, possibly due to pressure and fear of how they might be received if they lose." An interesting theory to say the least, something which will be put to test, for sure.
I think Gurusinha was perhaps the most important Sri Lankan batsman during that World Cup triumph. Without his solidity at no. 3 (often fondly compared to Rahul Dravid by Sri Lanka fans), the pinch-hitter strategy perhaps wouldn't have worked, the license for the likes of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana to go after the bowling, meant that they had a Gurusinha-like batsman at 3, whose role would mean batting out the overs. Knowing the way we respond to short-successes from our cricketers, I'd agree with my mate. "If Gura was Indian, he’d be God by now."