Who is the greatest Sri Lankan batsman of all time? If this is a trivia question, the correct answer in all likelihood will be Kumar Sangakkara. The second best batsman? Perhaps Mahela Jayawardene. But if you ask this question to cricket romantics from the 90s, there can only be one answer, without the slightest of doubt – Aravinda de Silva.
The impact on the fortunes of Sri Lanka and the indelible imprint on the minds of fans that he has left is unparalleled. De Silva gave us fans numerous moments of brilliance to rejoice in, but his crowning glory came in 1996 in the World Cup on March 17, when his outstanding all-round show helped Sri Lanka become world champions for the first time.
Let’s rewind the clock and take a look back at that historic day for Sri Lankan cricket, and how Aravinda became a hero forever:
#5 Taylor and Ponting guide the Aussie innings:
Put into bat after losing the toss, Australia lost their star batsman and the man in supreme form in the World cup, Mark Waugh, quite early with the score reading only 36. Left-arm pacer Chaminda Vaas got him out caught by eventual Man of the Tournament, Sanath Jayasuriya.
A young Ricky Ponting then joined his captain out in the middle and together they set about building a strong platform from where the lower middle order could launch an attack later. They added 101 for the second wicket before Mark Taylor was dismissed for 74 off only 83 balls in which was one of the best innings of his one day career.
Ponting was relatively sedated in the partnership and hit just 2 fours in his 45, but ensured his captain got most of the strike and kept the run rate moving.
#4 Aravinda conjures up some magic with the ball
Aravinda de Silva hadn’t bowled much in the tournament till this match but as they say: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. In this high-pressure game, he brought all his experience to the fore and bowled a magical spell that derailed the Australian innings and brought Sri Lanka strongly back in it.
He first accounted for the Australian captain Mark Taylor to break his dangerous looking 101 run stand with Ricky Ponting and then snared the latter too when he’d added just 15 with no.4 Steve Waugh.
The score that not too long ago was reading 137 for 1 had suddenly become 152 for 3 and Australia were on the back foot. He later picked up the wicket of Ian Healy too to end up with figures of 3 for 42 in 9 overs and make sure the Australians don’t get to a daunting total in this high-intensity match.
Cameos from Stuart Law and Michael Bevan meant they eventually ended with 241 runs on the board for the loss of 7 wickets after 50 overs.
#3 Sri Lankan innings begins with a stutter
Sri Lanka’s stars in this World Cup had been their explosive openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. One with arms of steel, the other a pocket sized dynamite. Together they had lit the tournament with their imaginative batting at the top of the order and were consistently giving Sri Lanka some really quick starts.
In this match though, luck was not on their side.
Jayasuriya was run-out in the second over of the innings with the score at just 12 and Kaluwitharana soon followed him to be dismissed for 6, caught by Michael Bevan off swing bowler and star of Australia’s semi-final win over the West Indies, Damien Fleming.
The scorecard read 23 and both the attacking openers were back in the hut for the Sri Lankans.
#2 Aravinda and Gurusinha calm the nerves
The loss of the two openers brought together the calm heads of Asanka Gurusinha and Aravinda de Silva at the crease. Slowly but surely, they began steadying the Lankan ship and brought a sense of belief back in the dressing room.
Gurusinha was slow but very effective as he scored 65 off 99 deliveries with 6 fours and a six and put together 125 for the third wicket with Aravinda, who was at his sublime best on this day, hitting his trademark cover drives and flicks off the pads with delightful ease.
Together they had put the innings back on track before Gurusinha lost his wicket to fast bowler Paul Reiffel, trying to go for a big shot, with the score at 148.
#1 The skipper and his deputy win the trophy for their team
When Gurusinha was dismissed, the target was still 94 runs away and anyone who saw Australia steal a win from the jaws of defeat in the semi-final against West Indies knew that they couldn’t have been counted out.
A collapse was on the cards considering Australia’s experience in big matches and Sri Lanka’s lack of it, but the Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga and his deputy, Aravinda, had other ideas.
Coming in at no.5, Ranatunga started attacking the Australian bowlers, especially Shane Warne, right from the word go and ensured that no pressure could come on the Sri Lankan middle order. He scored an unbeaten 47 off only 37 deliveries with 4 fours and six, and star spinner Warne went for 58 off his 10 overs; wicketless!
Aravinda De Silva on the other side, went about his business with pristine elegance and made sure the Australians were not given an inch to try and sneak back into the contest. He made a masterly unbeaten 107 off just 124 deliveries in an innings that had 13 boundaries and completed a Sri Lankan World Cup win in the most comprehensive fashion.
His performance of 3 for 42 and 107 not out was easily the best all-round performance by a player in a World Cup final, surpassing Wasim Akram’s in the tournament’s previous edition. Sri Lanka haven’t won the cup again since 1996 despite being in the finals 2 more times, in 2007 and 2011.
But Aravinda’s efforts on this day ensured that it’ll be etched in the memories of all Sri Lankan fans and indeed, cricket fans, forever.