Memories of Premasara Epasinge
One of the greatest pleasures of commentating on the game of cricket, and touring the world, is having the opportunity to visit places, observe different cultures and see things you would otherwise never have experienced. I was fortunate. I commentated thrice from Pakistan, India, England and Sarjah. Further, I toured South Africa, Kenya, Australia and Zimbabwe – as a commentator.
In my 40 year stint as a cricket commentator, the most memorable match, etched in my mind, is the Wills World Cup 1996 final played at the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore, Pakistan, on 17th March 1996. In this final, Sri Lanka beat Australia, by 7 wickets and annexed the World Cup for the first time. Undoubtedly, this was the greatest sporting victory ever recorded by Sri Lanka up to date. I described the run of play and had the distinction of describing the winning hit by skipper Ranatunga when he glided MacGrath’s out-swinger through the vacant slip area, to no man’s land, to record the Sri Lankan victory. That great batsman, Aravinda De Silva, remained unbeaten on 107. Ranatunga was not out 40.
It rained overnight, but on the day of the match, it was nice and sunny.
There was excitement everywhere. This was the 37th and the final match of the 1996 Wills World Cup. I walked along the muddy path, to the Gadadaffi Stadium and occupied my seat in the commentary box about two hours before the commencement of the final. The queues to enter the ground snaked around the massive stadium.
The picturesque, enormous Gadaffi Stadium was a symbol and silent monument, depicting the legacy of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the early 1970s. It bears witness to the Pakistan Prime Minister’s alliance with the Libyan leader.
It was not a surprise that the bookmakers predicted an Australian victory before the commencement of the final. Analysing the track records of Sri Lanka-Australia ODIs, Australia had won 23 of their 31 ODI clashes with Sri Lanka. The World Cup, 1996, was hosted by India-Pakistan-Sri Lanka. What’s more, no host nation had ever won the World Cup. Further, the side batting second had never won the cup up to 1996.
The two teams lined up for the National Anthems. The Australians, dressed in canary yellow, with green lettering and Sri Lankan, in deep blue and with yellow lettering. When the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’ – was played, we all stood – and then waited for the National Anthem of Sri Lanka.
The public address system played ‘Nkosi Siekelele Afrika’, the South African National Anthem, for a moment. The technician had pushed the wrong button. After a few seconds of silence, loudspeakers crackled ‘Namo-Namo-Matha’, our proud National Anthem, composed by the late Ananda Samarakoone.
There was a distinguished visitor in the Sri Lanka commentary box – the legendary Imran Khan. I had the privilege of speaking to Imran, the charismatic personality. Imran, expressing his sentiments, stated that the side batting first can score 250 runs and that will be a winning total. He also added that if Arjuna wins the toss, Sri Lanka should bat.
“If Arjuna wins the toss, probably he would ask Australia to bat,” I replied.
“I know this wicket. It is difficult to chase 250 plus”, Imran stated.
Sri Lanka usually like to chase totals,” I said.
After winning the toss, the roly-poly Ranatunga, invited the Australians to bat first.
Chaminda Vaas and Promodhaya Wickramasinghe opened the bowling. The two ‘Marks’ – Taylor and Waugh – opened the batting. Mark Waugh misread a ball and was out early, when Vaas deceived him. Jayasuriya took a stunning catch at square leg.
Rickey Ponting joined Mark Taylor, who was batting with authority. He cut and drove crisply. The Australians passed the three-figure mark in the 19th over. Ranatunga, however, handled the situation well. He rotated his spinners, Muralitharan, Dharmasena, Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva. After 25 overs, the Aussies were well placed, at 134 for 1. The crafty Aravinda de Silva induced Mark Taylor to falter. The ball flew off the top edge and the ‘Champion from Matara’, Sanath Jayasuriya, ran around, took a difficult catch. This catch was the turning point of the innings.
Panic set in. Ponting (45-73 balls) promoted Shane Warne. He tumbled. At the end of the 35th over, Australia were 170 for 5.
Pressure was building. At the end of the 45th over, the scoreboard read 205 for 7. Dharmasena and Muralitharan had completed their quota of overs. Ranatunga then very cleverly decided not to bring on Vaas and Wickramasinghe, but continued Jayasuriya and de Silva. Bevan remained unbeaten with 36 runs off 49 balls. The Sri Lankans restricted the Australians to 241 for 7 – a run rate of 4.84 per over. It was a fine team effort. Ranatunga handled the bowlers well.
Sri Lanka started disastrously – 24 for 2 wickets. Sanath Jayasuriya run out 9, Romesh Kaluwitharana 6.
Then Aravinda de Silva and Asanka steadied the ship with a partnership of 125. They laid the foundation for a Sri Lankan victory. Gurusinghe made 65 in 99 balls.
Aravinda – Absolute Genius
Aravinda de Silva became the cynosure of all eyes. He was an absolute genius. His innings proved one fact. If there was a wizard or a magician with a bat, it was Aravinda de Silva. When skipper Ranatunga arrived at the crease, Sri Lanka needed 95 from 119 balls. The Australians were fighting, Aravinda and Arjuna kept their cool. Also, they calculated the runs they needed for victory to the decimal point. Now the target was 50 in 60 balls. Runs were flowing. Aravinda was at his best. He despatched Reiffel through the covers.
Then he leaned, turned his wrists and despatched the ball through mid-wicket. The 70,000-odd spectators were enjoying this batting display. The Mexican-wave circled the Gadaffi Stadium. It was a panoramic view from the box. The lights were on. It is something I will never forget.
Skipper Taylor invited Shane Warne to bowl. It was Warne’s last over in the World Cup 1996. De Silva pushed a single. Ranatunga danced down, drove the ball powerfully through the air and it bounced into the sight-screen. The world’s best leg spinner, Warne, sent a full-toss, which was labelled to be hit, and Ranatunga pulled it for a six to the stands. While commentating, I pictured the home celebrations. I imagined how the people in Sri Lanka would be singing and dancing.
The majestic Aravinda de Silva glanced a ball to the boundary and reached the three-figure mark. He beat Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Mark Waugh and proved himself to be the master of one-day art.
I was describing the scene to millions of listeners the world over. I still remember Arjuna Ranatunga ending the match by scoring 47 not out and Aravinda de Silva, an epic 107 not out, and Sri Lanka annexed the 1996 Wills World Cup defeating Australia by 7 wickets. The crowd, clapping, and cheering filled the air. The Sri Lankan team dashed to the field and embraced the two heroes. The 97 unbeaten match winning stand, shared by de Silva and Ranatunga, was a masterpiece.
Benazir Bhutto, that charming Prime Minister of Pakistan, made her way through the crowd to the podium. She presented the World Cup Trophy to Ranatunga and the Man of the Match cheque to de Silva.
The spectators dancing in the middle was a sight to watch. In the mayhem, a number of Sri Lankan cricketers were pushed arund. Later, I got to know that the World Cup winners cheque was picked from Ranatunga’s pocket. It was later cancelled and the sponsors replaced a cheque for a sum of US $100,000 for the winning team. Sri Lanka were truly an allround team.
The Sri Lanka Lions roared. The man of the match in the finals was Aravinda de Silva. Sanath Jayasuriya was named as the Most Valuable Player and the Man of the Series.
Steve Bucknor (West Indies) and David Shephard (England) were the umpires. The match Referee was Clive Lloyd from the West Indies who lifted the World Cup in 1975 and 1979.
The Sri Lankan World Cup champion team was coached by Dav Whatmore and the Manager was Duleep Mendis, who was the Sri Lankan skipper who recorded the first ever Test victory for Sri Lanka.
The victorious Sri Lanka team 1996 World Cup champions
Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluvitharana (Wkt. Keeper), Asanka Gurusinghe, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga (Capt.), Hashan Tillekeratne, Roshan Mahanama, Kumar Dharmasena, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Promodhaya Wickramasinghe.
Reserves: Marvan Attapattu, Upul Chandana, Ravindra Pushpakumara.
Coach: Dav Whatmore.
Manager: Duleep Mendis.