As the 92 world cup drew to a close I was just left wondering how my life would change four years down the lane and by 96 I was no longer a Indian resident and I moved on to USA to pursue grad studies. Now watching cricket on TV had almost become a luxury and a real cricket enthusiast like me had to rely on Indian newspapers and the still infant Cricketing websites to keep in touch with the happenings in the game..
For all the Recorded History of Ashes where the first match was played in 1877 and recognized as the first test match the oldest International match was not played by England or Australia. The first recorded international cricket match and the first international sports contest ever was played between USA and Canada in 1844. It’s an altogether different story that cricket lost its foothold to baseball in USA and cricket just remained a sport played by the immigrants from Common Wealth Countries thereafter. However the diehard cricket fans amongst Indian Immigrant Community always kept in touch with cricket and I was no exception. As the 96 cricket world cup approached the Indian Students at our university had pitched in to buy the cricket package sold by a hitherto unknown channel to follow the World cup and we were joined by the cricket fans form other cricket playing nations. As such it was a totally different experience altogether.
The landscape of the cricketing world was slowly changing. Indian Cricket by this time had become synonymous with Sachin Tendulkar and Indian Cricket team had become a one many army. Interestingly our Southern Neighbors Sri Lankans were taking the cricketing world by Storm.. A year before when I was cursorily glancing the sports pages of the international newspapers in the library I saw a prediction by the famous New Zealand bowler Richard Hadlee who predicted that SriLanka would win the 96 world cup. It looked too farfetched to be taken seriously but Hadlee had argued in his article how Sri Lankans had revolutionized the game with their openers Sanath Jaysuriya and kaluwitharana taking all the bowling attacks to the cleaners in the first 15 over’s of the game. It was a truly a different way of playing cricket right back then…
The world cup returned to the Indian subcontinent after 9 years and this time Srilanka also pitched in along with India and Pakistan to share the hosting responsibilities. The Cricket bosses were now keen on expanding the number of teams playing the world cup and we had likes of Kenya , Netherlands and UAE joing the big boys. These 3 countries labeled the minnows had earned their right to be there as they had jumped through the hoops of the qualification process for the world cup.. India, Srilanka and Pakistan made sure they all played their matches in their respective countries in the League phase. In spite of Srilankas best efforts to play the perfect hosts they were plagued by their own domestic security problems because of an internal civil revolt by the local Tamil extremist organizations.. As much as the sub continental teams rallied behind them Australia and West indies refused to Play in Srilanka forfeiting their matches and conceding some easy points to Sri Lanka. The organizers had tweaked in the format and Quarter Finals were introduced for the first time in the world cup almost guaranteeing the top 8 teams an entry in the knock outs..
As the tournament progressed there was almost a sense of bonding within the group with whom I used to watch the matches together. Once when we were watching a match between the west indies and India one of our Caribbean friends dropped in and jokingly asked if the windies team was winning. One of our guys strongly replied “Yes sure in your dreams”.. Our Caribbean friend left the room some time later as he realized his team was losing . This all added to the fun and excitement. Srilanka was in red hot form and players like Ranatunga, Muralitharan , Arvinda de silva were in the form of their life.. South Africa blanked out every one in their group and remained undefeated. . India and Pakistan did not have to anything extraordinary to qualify for the quarters. The tournament did throw a odd surprise with Kenya defeating West indies and UAE captain Sultan Zarwani showing great machismo when he faced the fastest bowler Allan Donald without a helmet. The quarters produced one classic of a India Pakistan Match and India came on top much to the delight of all the India fans.. The Send off Venkatesh Prasad gave to Amir Sohail in that match was a stuff of the legend . Srilanka , Westindies and Australia romped into the Semis at the expense of South Africa who had to return empty handed after whitewashing everyone in the league phase. This was to have some consequences in the future world cups.
Finally came that Fateful day when Srilanka plucked the Indian bubble in the semis when on a spin friendly track Indian batting collapsed at Eden Gardens in spite of the great Sachin Tendulkar’s defiance.. As I watched the Restive Indian Crowd at the Eden Gardens disrupt the match with their unruly behavior and the match awarded to the Lankans by the referee the sight of vinod kambli crying made me empathize with the Indian fans at Eden gardens as I blurted out in front of my friends ” I sympathize with those guys in the stadium ” and immediately I was criticized by a Indian looking guy and I for a moment was confused with his reaction. My other Indian friends just quietly whispered don’t worry he is a sri lankan !!!. In the other Semis Windies in sight of victory were throttled by Shane Warne to send them crashing out of the semis… In the end the wise man Richard Hadlee’s prophecy indeed came true..
On March 17 1996 at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore Aussies led by Mark Taylor faced mad max Arvinda de silva in marauding form and capitulated to the rampaging Srilankan Lions in that once in a life time final. Arjun Rantunga made sure he made his name written in Gold in the Annals of Sri lankan History as he lifted the Wills World Cup trophy that night in Lahore and the rest as they say is history.