Arjuna Ranatunga (left) and Asanka Gurusinha with the World Cup which Sri Lanka won after beating Australia in the 1996 final at Lahore © Getty Images
Arjuna Ranatunga (left) and Asanka Gurusinha with the World Cup which Sri Lanka won after beating Australia in the 1996 final at Lahore © Getty Images

Sri Lanka played brilliantly as a team in the 1996 World Cup and in a fitting finale beat Australia in the title clash on March 17, 1996. H Natarajan who covered the match from Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, captures the most defining moment in Sri Lankan cricket history.

Sri Lanka felt understandably bitter and cheated when Australia and the West Indies forfeited their respective Group A matches in the 1996 World Cup than risk playing in the trouble-torn Colombo. The feelings of the islanders was echoed by Information Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake who reacted to Australia’s win over the West Indies in the semi-final, by saying that it gives Sri Lanka an opportunity to “teach a lesson” to Mark Taylor’s Australians in the final.

The needle between Sri Lanka and Australia going into the World Cup final was unmistakable.

Sri Lanka had the right general to lead their army. Arjuna Ranatunga is to Sri Lankan cricket what Clive Lloyd was to West Indies cricket — the mastermind in the rise of the nation to the pinnacle of cricketing glory. Like Lloyd, Ranatunga commanded immense respect from his team. He was seen as a statesman who did not hesitate to take on the officialdom or speak his mind. He angrily took on the umpires in Australia who cornered his trump card, Muttiah Muralitharan.

The Australians hated Ranatunga’s guts. As Ian Chappell told ESPNcricinfo: “Ravi Shastri had to interview Ranatunga, and I had to interview Shane Warne a day before the final. Ravi had done his interview already, and the message must have got through to the Australian camp. Shane Warne had definitely heard it because he came over to me, and before we even did the interview, he said, ‘What’s the fat bastard said about me now?’ And what Arjuna had said was that Shane Warne was a bit of a media myth, and was not as good a bowler as everyone made him out to be. So here was this Sri Lankan captain really antagonising the Australians, and saying, “Come on, come on, we want you.”

Ranatunga oozed self-belief. When Australia refused to go and play their match in Sri Lanka, Ranatunga had said he wants Sri Lanka to play Australia in the final. This was in sharp contrast to other captains who were wishing they could avoid Australia.

The Sri Lankans arrived for the final to a rousing reception at the Lahore Airport with the police band in attendance. As the Sri Lankan players emerged from the Pakistan International Airlines flight into the Haj Lounge, they were garlanded and showered with rose petals as they made their way through an explosion of flash bulbs and sea of TV cameras. The Lankans had offered balm to the hurt feelings of the Pakistanis, sore from their team’s loss to India in the quarter-finals. The Pakistanis were not hiding their vicarious joy after Sri Lanka plotted India’s exit in the next round. It was now time to say a big thank you to the Lankans and the warm welcome was just their way of saying that they [Sri Lankan team] would be made to feel at home during the final at the Gaddafi Stadium against Australia.

The defining day in Sri Lankan cricket history

Sri Lanka had marched in style into the final. They were now determined to stop the Australian juggernaut. Ranatunga made an auspicious start by winning the toss and inserting the opposition.

After Mark Waugh gifted away his wicket by flicking Chaminda Vaas into square-leg Sanath Jayasuriya’s hands, Mark Taylor and Ricky Ponting put things in perspective by adding 101 in 115 balls. The two batsmen employed orthodox methods, capitalising fully on the extended bowl given by skipper Ranatunga to his two opening bowlers — Vaas and Pramodya Wickramasinghe.  Vaas bowled 6 overs for 30 runs and Pramodya 7 for 38.

Taylor targeted Vaas, pulling the left-arm medium-pacer for four boundaries and driving Wickeramasinghe thrice through the offside field. The Australian captain who was playing his 96the One-Day International could never convert any of his 26 half-centuries into hundreds. But on this day he looked good to get to the three-figure mark. However, in the 27th over of the innings, he swept Aravinda de Silva, straight into deep square-leg Jayasuriya’s hands.

Taylor was gone for 74 (83 balls, one six, 8 fours). But he had given the innings an encouraging base. The Australian run-rate at the fall of Taylor’s wicket was an impressive — by 1996 standards — 5.22. However, the pitch underwent a dramatic change in character and started giving copious assistance to the spinners.

Ponting, who was batting confidently, was bowled by Aravinda for 45, paying the penalty for cutting a ball close the stumps. With his exit, the Australian innings lost momentum. Shane Warne, promoted up the order, was beaten in the flight by Muralitharan — he bowled an excellent second spell of 7-0-15-1 — to be stumped by Romesh Kaluwitharana. Aravinda then got into the act to dominate the proceedings, He first took a well-judged catch in the deep to thwart Steve Waugh’s effort to go over the straight field and then took another catch to end Stuart Law’s stay at the wicket. Aravinda then came on to bowl Ian Healy through the gate as the batsman shaped for a drive.

The Australian innings lost its way in the middle overs; they were able to score just 44 between the 25th and 40th overs and just 29 between the 30th and 40th overs. If Douglas Jardine was at the Gaddafi Stadium to watch the Australian struggle, he would have probably said it was like an old maid defending her virginity!

Thanks to the ever-reliable Michael Bevan (36 in 49 balls), Australia were able to score 63 in the last 10 overs to set Sri Lanka a fighting target.

Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya were explosive in the World Cup with the double-barreled attack, the likes of which the cricketing world had not seen. The 43 runs in 3 overs against India and 50 in 4 overs against Kenya, both efforts earlier in the World Cup, exemplified their attacking brilliance. Jayasuriya ferocity in tearing bowling attacks was seen against England in the quarter-finals when he plundered 82 runs off just 44 balls. The left-hander was Australia’s biggest threat in the final.

Sri Lanka got into quick trouble when they began their reply. They lost their two turbo-powered openers, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana, with just 23 on the board — the former getting run out, while the diminutive Kalu falling to Damien Fleming. Both batsmen failing to get into double figures.

Aravinda de Silva acknowledges the cheering on reaching his hundred in the final © Getty Images
Aravinda de Silva acknowledges the cheering on reaching his hundred in the final © Getty Images

The crisis was palpable when Aravinda walked into join one-drop Asanka Gurusinha. Aravinda was brilliant coming into the final with scores of 91, 8, 145, 31 and 66. He had already made his mark as a bowler with figures of 9-0-42-3 and fielder. Now the team was looking at him to play the innings of his lifetime in Sri Lanka’s biggest day in international cricket. Aravinda did not let his team down. He was in command from the very first ball he faced. It was an extension of the form he exhibited in the semi-final against India, when he walked in to bat at No. 4 with the score on two for the loss of Jayasuriya and Kalu, and blazed his way to 66 (off 47 balls) with 14 boundaries. Aravinda’s footwork was flawless, his timing was sweet and his sense of picking the gaps was a lesson in geometry.

The key to the Australians’ fortune on a wicket that afforded copious turn was Shane Warne. But Aravinda destroyed him with clinical precision — as if to reiterate Ranatunga’s pre-match comments of the Australian spin legend. Aravinda threw Warne out of the attack and inflicted such a debilitating bowl that the leggie was a shadow of his self. Warne ended the day with none for 58 in his 10 overs.

Aravinda added 125 runs in 15.2 overs with Gurusinha, who was fortunate to be dropped thrice. But Gurusinha did not allow the reprieves play on his mind as he lost no opportunity to attack the Aussies during his 99-ball 65.

After Gurusinha’s exit, Ranatunga hastened Australia’s doom in his inimitable, wristy ways, remaining unbeaten on 47 (off 37 balls). Ranatunga added 97 runs with Aravinda for the unbeaten fourth wicket. It was fitting that the two senior pros were in the middle when Sri Lanka scaled their biggest cricketing peak. Aravinda remained unbeaten on 107 and emerged as the man of the final for his exemplary all-round performance.

Twenty-one years after playing the inaugural World Cup in 1975 as minnows, Sri Lanka were now the world champions of the abridged version of the game. Ranatunga had walked the talk; his team had performed as a well-oiled machine right through the tournament and emerged as deserving winners. Sri Lanka truly arrived as a power to reckon with on March 17, 1996, which is underlined by the fact that in the four World Cups since emerging as champions, they have reached the semis once and in the finals twice.

Brief scores: 

Australia 241 for 7 in 5 overs (Mark Taylor 74, Ricky Ponting 45, Michael Bevan 36 not out; Aravinda de Silva 3 for 42) lost to Sri Lanka 245 for 3 in 46.2 overs (Asanka Gurusinha 65, Aravinda de Silva 107*, Arjuna Ranatunga 47*) by 7 wickets.

Man of the Match: Aravinda de Silva.
Man of the Series: Aravinda de Silva.

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)

In photos – Sri Lanka’s victory over Australia in the 1996 World Cup final