It would have taken more than a full-strength South African attack to stop Arjuna Ranatunga that day © Getty Images
It would have taken more than a full-strength South African attack to stop Arjuna Ranatunga that day © Getty Images

March 2, 1992. The South African and the Sri Lankans both wanted the cricket world to accept them as a force to reckon with. And at Basin Reserve that ensured a cracker of a match. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the day the unfancied Sri Lankan batting stood up to the might of the South African bowlers.

A lot to play for

A nation back in the fold after 22 years, eager to prove that time and isolation had done nothing to douse the fire in their game. The other, slowly but surely finding their feet in the world scene, keen to shed their tag of minnows.

The two met under the picturesque Mount Victoria and Mount Cook, as relaxed spectators reclined on the grass banks on the eastern side. It was, however, not a game to be enjoyed while basking leisurely in the idyllic sun trap. It was to be lapped up while perched at the edge of the seat with knuckles cracked to the limit and nails gnawed to the quick.

South Africa exuded quiet confidence. They had started brilliantly by humiliating defending champions Australia by nine wickets. President FW de Klerk had rung up the Afrikaanse skipper Kepler Wessels to convey his congratulations. The fax number of the team hotel had been shared with the public and laudatory messages had poured in.

Following this, they had been unsettled by the slow New Zealand wickets and the path-breaking strategy of the Kiwis, and been defeated by seven wickets. The fax machine had spit out missives dripping with filthy abuse from back home.

The situation in the Rainbow Nation was in an upheaval. The referendum for ending apartheid was due to be held on March 17, in another 15 days. It was the time of a new dawn, a new era, and it was reflected in the team selection. That day in Wellington, Omar Henry became the first non-white cricketer to play international cricket for South Africa — barring the controversial caveat of Charlie Llewellyn during the turn of the twentieth century and Henry’s own appearances against the rebel teams in the mid-1980s.

Sri Lanka too had plenty of points to prove. Long treated as the also-rans of the cricket world, the side were taking the first steps of a journey that would end four years later with Arjuna Ranatunga lifting the trophy at Lahore. They were a team limited in their wares, especially the bowling department, but the spirit burned bright. And that early in the tournament they had not yet run out of steam as they would some days down the line.

The non-Test playing Zimbabwe had pummelled their attack to score 312 at New Plymouth, but the Sri Lankan batters had chased it down in the final over. The match with India had been severely curtailed and reduced to a 20-overs-a side encounter and then the elements had allowed only two balls to be bowled before the skies had opened again. The points had been shared but Sri Lanka, with several attractive strokeplayers in their ranks, had fancied their chances in the shortened game. With a decent start to the tournament, the team looked to continue riding the tide in their affairs.

Sluggish to the point of stagnant

It was captain Aravinda de Silva who won the toss and decided that if the wicket did anything it would be in the morning. The Zimbabwe match had shown that they excelled at chasing. So, South Africa batted.  Wessels walked out with Adrian Kuiper who had been pushed up the order at the expense of Andrew Hudson.

Progress was slow. The fluent Kuiper could not break away, and Wessels took more than his time. The Sri Lankan medium pacers came off the sluggish wicket at a dawdling, difficult clip. Kuiper hit across the line once too often and was castled by left-arm spinner Don Anurasiri. Peter Kirsten struck the ball well, and skipped down the track once to loft Anurasiri over long-off for six. But, de Silva cannily used his slow medium bowlers, including Asanka Gurusinha and Arjuna Ranatunga, and the fifty came up as late as the 19th over.

Kirsten did find the boundary on occasions, showing a wide range of strokes, and the rate improved to register the 100 in the 33rd over. However, Wessels had still not managed a boundary.

The bowling was disciplined, thoughtful and the ground fielding superb. Sanath Jayasuriya, his role in the side still undetermined, was a far cry from the explosive match-winner of the 1996 edition.  He did not bowl at all, and batted way down at number seven. But on the field he was a livewire, attacking the ball and bringing off impossible saves. The others, especially Roshan Mahanama, were not far behind.

The situation imploded for the Proteas at 114. It was the 36th over, and they desperately needed to get a move on. Kirsten came down the wicket to Ruwan Kalpage’s off-spin and his lofted drive sailed into the hands of long-off.

At the other end, Ranatunga was bowling a nagging spell of slow medium pace. With overs running out, Wessels tried to force the pace and ended up lobbing one straight back to the chubby bowler. It was just the start of the many contributions of Ranatunga in the match. The long 94-ball vigil of the Protean captain had amounted to a boundary-less 40.

Jonty Rhodes, in his characteristic busy manner, gathered some quick runs, but he was not helped at the other end. Debutant Mark Rushmere’s off-side push was incredibly held by a sprawling Jayasuriya at short cover. Hansie Cronje was stumped, falling over while attempting a slog sweep. The brief Rhodes cameo ended when he tried to lift Pramodya Wickramasinghe over cover and Jayasuriya leapt up at short cover, flung out his left hand and brought off his second spectacular catch. Richards Snell tried to improvise a bit too much and was bowled as he moved away to cut.

There was no final acceleration. The South African innings came to a stumbling end at a rather sedate 195, the last man Allan Donald run out off the final delivery.

The Donald strikes

The target was low, eminently gettable, but on those dicey surfaces dished out by Kiwiland, against a bowling attack brimming with class and quality, it could be a rather steep ask.

And as the Lankan innings began, it showed every indication of becoming an uphill struggle. Donald ran in with chapstick streaked across his face, fire burning in his eyes. Chandika Hathurusingha went neither back nor forward and managed to snick it to slip. Gurusinha was all at sea for three balls, and was struck plumb in front off the fourth. Skipper de Silva walked in at 12 for 2 and played a superb cover drive off Brian McMillan, but Donald yorked him with a deadly in-ducker. It was 35 for 3 in the 10th over, with a collapse looking very much on the cards.

At the other end Mahanama was looking composed, picking up a few boundaries fine on either side of the wicket. The man who joined him was Hashan Tillakaratne, born to repair the innings in such situations of crisis. The progress was slow, but further damage was averted. The dangerous Donald was seen off. For an hour and a quarter the two men batted with a lot of price on their wickets. The score inched along into the eighties. And then left-handed Tillakaratne tried to pull Henry with the spin over the deep midwicket. The ball did not go all the way, Rushmere threw up the catch.

The Roly-poly Rollicking Ranatunga

It was 87 for 4, in the 29th over, the match tantalisingly balanced, when Ranatunga’s stout form was seen walking towards the middle.

Mahanama was solid, safe, sometimes enjoying a stroke of luck. A slash over point went for four, a dab down to third man brought up his fifty. However, Ranatunga batted like a dream.

Donald charged in, determined to deliver the final blow. The ball was on the off-stump. And Ranatunga drove him square of the wicket for an impeccable boundary, stamping his authority on the proceedings. Another square drive rocketed away off Snell. The interim was spent in milking the bowling.

In the 42nd over the 150 was on the board. Ranatunga, his midsection starting to protrude visibly at this stage of his career, was into the 30s and starting to look dangerous. He celebrated the milestone by cutting Snell over gully for another boundary.

But, things changed again. McMillan cannily cramped Mahanama for room, and his compulsive dab went off a thin edge to Dave Richardson. A valuable contribution of 68 came to an end with the match still hanging by a thread.

Ranatunga countered by clipping Kuiper over square-leg for four and sweeping Kirsten fine for a couple. The Sri Lankans, with less than a run a ball required, astutely targeted the part-time bowlers for the bulk of their runs. However, in the process, Jayasuriya tried to sweep Kirsten from outside the off-stump, off a ball that could have been driven down the ground with ease. He missed, overbalanced, and Richardson whipped off the bails.

At 168 for six, Ranatunga was joined by Kalpage. And the stocky middle-order man knew what he needed to do. He punched to deep point, sprinted down the wicket, turned in a flash, took on the arm of Donald and scampered back. The rolls of adipose could be deceptive; Ranatunga could be quick when required.

A single to short fine leg brought up a gem of a half-century. But 22 were still required from 20 balls.

In the next over Donald charged in, and Ranatunga slashed hard. The ball went fine and thudded in to the third-man fence. Balance shifted a wee bit to the Lankan side.

At the other end, Kalpage was doing his best to rotate the strike. The runs required and balls remaining ran neck and neck till the very death. Finally Donald stood with the ball at 189 for 6 at the start of the last over. 7 runs were required off the 6 thunderbolts that were yet to come. Ranatunga eyed the field with his bat raised in his hand, keenly observing the position of the men.

The first ball was outside the off-stump, Ranatunga’s bat swished at it and missed. Richardson pouched the ball, took a couple of steps forward and his eyes fell upon Kalpage tearing down the wicket for some unknown reason. Ranatunga stood rooted to his crease, a look of disbelief on his face and turned his back on his partner. The wicketkeeper lobbed the throw and the bails were removed. Kalpage walked back, needlessly withdrawing the support he had so far rendered so admirably.

7 to win, 5 balls to go, Champaka Ramanayake trudged gingerly to the non-striker’s end. In ran Donald again, pitching it up on the middle-stump. Ranatunga stepped across with his front foot; his bat came down in a straight arc and hoisted the ball over mid-wicket where the boundary stood inviting and unguarded. The nearest man was behind square and the ball won the race uncontested. The balance was back with the batsmen.

3 to win from 4 balls. Wessels ran his hand through his hair, set the field meticulously. Donald kept it up, on the off-stump this time. Ranatunga steered straight to cover point. Rhodes stood there. It was suicide running to the man, but they did sprint. The throw came in with Ramanayake way out of ground, and whisked past the stumps, missing the woodwork by less than a foot. A run was notched, but Ranatunga lost the strike.

With 2 to score and 3 balls to go, tail-ender on strike, the field crept in. Ramanayake had bowled superbly, his measly 9 overs costing just 19 with a wicket to boot. Now he had to win the match with an unfamiliar weapon in the shape of a bat in his hand.

In ran Donald again, the ball was fired in, probably an attempted yorker that reached the batsman on the full and straight like an arrow out of the hand. Ramanayake brought his bat down in an attempted drive. The South African fielders converged on the ball as it trickled just as far as the mid-pitch. Ranatunga hastened back to his crease. It was a dot.

2 required off 2. Ramanayake waited. Donald turned and started his sprint. The ball was full, straight, on the off. The bat came down, the face opened. The ball was squirted between point and cover and ran away into the outfield. The batsmen sprinted as the white blob sped on the turf, the man at third-man trying desperately to get around the boundary. To be absolutely sure Ranatunga urged Ramanayake to turn and complete the second even as the ball rolled into the fence. And then the hero of the day threw his arms up, heavenward, ran towards his partner and engulfed him in a hug.

The crowd cheered loudly the Lankan duo all the way back, the expats in the mix were vociferous in their joy. Sri Lanka had won off the penultimate ball of the day. Ranatunga, a deserving man of the match, smiled from ear to ear as he returned tired and triumphant after the victorious chase.

Brief Scores:

South Africa 195 in 50 overs (Kepler Wessels 40, Peter Kirsten 47; Don Anurasiri 3 for 41, Arjuna Ranatunga 2 for 26) lost to Sri Lanka 198 for 7 in 49.5 overs (Roshan Mahanama 68, Arjuna Ranatunga 64*; Allan Donald 3 for 42) by three wickets.

Man of the Match: Arjuna Ranatunga.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)