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Cricket news - World Cup 1996: Not-the-best team's fairytale win

"I'll tell you, the '96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed."

In the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, Cricbuzz is publishing an eleven-part series to reminisce every bygone edition. In this sixth instalment, Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga recall Sri Lanka's inspiring performances and the little things that went their way as they claimed their first-ever World Cup.

"The '96 team was not the best we had at that time"

Sri Lanka's World Cup victory in 1996 was a fairytale, but the planning had started a long time ago. Ranatunga, Sri Lanka's captain, had to fight for the inclusion of a certain Muttaih Muralitharan, 23 years old at the time and in the eye of a 'chucking' storm. Sri Lanka's team, according to Ranatunga, was not the best that was picked, but the most committed.

Arjuna Ranatunga: I am a very positive guy, I don't look at the negative side. I'll tell you, the '96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed team I picked. I never wanted the most talented team, I wanted a team which gives me 100%, (players) who will come out and give their lives to the country.

A captain is a person who will listen to entire all 9-10 players but ultimately take a decision, more like without listening to anyone. It is all about how he feels. I think, that is the strength I had, I was never afraid to take decisions. Whatever decisions I have taken, more than 70-80 per cent was on the plus side.

It's all about how you protect your cricketers. Have a little patience. I can give you a couple of examples - Jayasuriya, he was awful at the start, Marvan Attapattu couldn't get a single run. But when we looked at them, we knew that they are going to come out from this shell. So it's all about protecting them, safeguarding them, push them at the right time, throw them to the deep end at the right time.

Before the World Cup, I picked about 20 cricketers, I didn't announce (that though). Somewhere in early '95, I decided 'Okay, I'm going to work with these 20 guys'. The only cricketer who came to the side away from outside of this 20 was Marvan Attapattu.

Unlike nowadays, only 14 players formed the World Cup squad in 1996. We had an issue in selecting the team. Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] had been called for 'throwing' in Australia a few months before the World Cup. The selectors argued that if he gets into trouble again, we will be left with only 13 players and that was a big risk.

During the 'chucking' controversy, I saw the camaraderie in the team. Everyone in the squad in Australia had supported Murali. I told the selectors that I wasn't going to lead the team without Murali. We debated about it and finally the selectors let me have him in the squad.

Aravinda de Silva: When you're set you don't want to take a chance with the new batsman coming in. So that's what experience does, not just playing matches. You have to back that player. Like Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Attapattu, who failed so much at that start, but we saw the potential in them and backed them. Players who have played and been there, know what to do.

Mad Max

In Aravinda de Silva, Sri Lanka had a great talent, but he knew that he had to keep his best player happy in order to unleash him on the opposition

Aravinda de Silva: He and I got on well. He said, we should make sure that the players make mistakes and learn rather than not to play certain shots. Because then that will put them in a negative space, so this will get them to be positive always. So that allowed me to play my natural game.

Your friends (the media) used to always criticise me, but it's changed now. It's always a case of not worrying about (pressure and criticism), as long as you know you've gone out there and done your best that is what matters, because at the end of the day you learn everyday and you learn through mistakes.

You know yourself better than anyone else. To learn from mistakes and do better is one of the greatest attributes one can have. Let them lose, it doesn't matter. Losing is actually a part of being successful.

When I was batting in the final, I thought of so many instances where I had rushed to try and finish the game and lost my wicket, made a blunder and from there we had struggled to win. So at that moment I decided, until the last run was made I'm going to stay and not take a chance.

Arjuna Ranatunga: We had all the hard-hitting guys. Roshan (Mahanama) was shifted down, Hasan (Tillakaratne) was shifted down, I shifted down and our target was to protect Aravinda. We knew if Aravinda is going to get runs, we will win the World Cup. So we kept him very happy, comfortable, allowed him to get runs. All the pressure, I used to bat at 5, Roshan at 6, Hasan at 7, we used to take all the pressure.

When the dream started taking shape

Sri Lanka strolled through to the quarterfinals, with the process made even easier by Australia and West Indies pulling out from playing in Sri Lanka due to security concerns. Now, playing England in the quarters, Sri Lanka sensed they were on to something special.

Aravinda de Silva: We did not set any goals. We wanted to take it game by game. Then we suddenly realised that we were playing good cricket, and wanted to keep the momentum going. That's exactly what we did. We had lot of belief in ourselves and managed to make it happen. I think after the quarters, I remember telling Arjuna, if we win this, we'll win the World Cup.

That was the first stage of knockouts, and the kind of cricket we were playing prompted us to feel that way. We felt that any target set by any opposition is gettable. That's the sort of belief we had at that time. The confidence was very very high and you have to remember, cricket is a game of confidence. That's exactly what happened.

Arjuna Ranatunga: Roshan was a senior player and it was a tough call to leave him out for this match. On the eve of the game, Upul (Chandana, who had been picked in his place) came to my room. He said, we are unbeaten in the competition. We have momentum behind us. Why do you want to change the winning combination, he asked. That was very sensible reasoning.

Aravinda de Silva: I think all our spinners did well that day, so we didn't need him Upul that much. Sanath went after the bowlers and in the end we won comfortably. He did come out and gave us a run out, so he still did his part to help us somehow. He was there for just two overs during a crucial phase, and got a run out.

That semifinal at the Eden Gardens

One of the more unforgettable moments in World Cup history, India's chances went up in smoke, literally, as a raging crowd turned on them after they collapsed to a losing position under Sri Lanka's relentless pressure. The architect of that was de Silva, who hammered 66 off just 47 balls despite his side reeling at 2 for 1.

Aravinda de Silva: Becoming number 1 in Sri Lanka was not my ambition, I wanted to be number 1 in the world when I was playing. I was working towards achieving that and in the process beat everyone else in the country, but my targets were always more than an average person, that's always why when things got difficult I wanted to make sure and perform, when we were out travelling I wanted to perform.

That's what was inside me during that match. I didn't show it, but I had that killer spirit to say, 'okay, here's an opportunity, I'm going to give it everything. If I fail, I fail' - everyone else has failed anyway. I went out and immediately got into my zone. I was aggressive and wasn't scared of not doing well. In that space, I could bat freely.

Arjuna Ranatunga: Upul was a great team man. In the semifinal in Calcutta, Roshan had cramps and Upul, the 12th man was fielding as substitute. He was one of our best fielders and we usually keep him in the circle as he was clever with direct hits. As fans started throwing objects on to the field, he came up to me and asked, 'Can I go and field in the deep?' When I asked why, he said that Aravinda [de Silva] was fielding in the deep and if something happens and Aravinda is hurt that will be big blow. So he volunteered to go to the deep.

The Final

A supremely significant moment in Sri Lankan, and cricket's history, arrived late on March 17 at the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore as Ranatunga guided a ball to third man for four and gave Sri Lanka the World Cup.

Arjuna Ranatunga: I walked in to have breakfast and saw the Australian team there. They were all seated in one table. All wearing the same dress and there was pin drop silence. They were focusing on the game at hand.

I looked around and couldn't see any of our boys. I saw Duleep (Mendis), the Manager, walking in for breakfast and asked him where they were. Duleep told me that there was a carpet sale going on at the lobby and they were all there. I was angry. I told Duleep that this is such a big occasion and these guys don't care and rushed downstairs to tell them to get off.

When I went down, I saw the entire team there. Aravinda was bargaining for carpets. Sanath was bargaining and everyone was bargaining. I just told myself... 'Hang on, the big match pressure is getting to Australia. Our guys meanwhile are carefree. Isn't this the ideal way to go into the big final? So I joined the boys, didn't tell them anything. Eventually, I also started bargaining.

Aravinda de Silva: Yeah, I think in a World Cup final, you can't ask for anything better. But I think getting there was mainly due to the huge amount of teamwork and effort. The team worked as one. From Duleep Mendis to Davey [Dave Whatmore] to Alex Kountornis, they all helped the entire team to really achieve what we did. We got a lot of support from some of the junior players in vital situations. Upul Chandana coming and getting a run-out in the quarters. Vital roles, here and there we were getting.

For me, it was a challenge. Australia, best team in the world - go out there, do your best, and if we beat them we're on top of the world. It was very important to me which side I was making runs against. Obviously, it worked well that day.

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