17th March 1996 is indeed a red-letter day in the history of Sri Lankan cricket. The island nation stunned one and all by winning the coveted ICC ODI World Cup on this day 24 years ago.
Sri Lanka were placed in group A and comprehensively beat India, Zimbabwe, and Kenya in the group stages. Australia and West Indies forfeited their matches against the Islanders due to safety reasons, providing Arjuna Ranatunga's team four (two apiece) easy points. With five wins in five games, Sri Lanka topped their group.
The quarter-final against England was another cakewalk for them as they comprehensively chased a total of 236 with 9.2 overs remaining and five wickets in hand.
They had a firm grip on the semi-final game against India (who were 120/8 chasing Sri Lanka's 251) as well before getting the match had to be awarded to them as play could not be continued due to the rioting crowd.
Thus, Sri Lanka were just one step away from becoming World Champions. Their openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana forever changed the way teams played the first 15 overs.
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In the 90s, teams would be satisfied with scoring 60-odd overs in the first 15 overs. However, the duo of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana decimated the opposition bowling attacks during this particular slot of overs, amassing 117 runs against India, 123 against Kenya, and 121 against England in the quarter-finals.
A moment to savour
The final against Australia at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore is by far the biggest day in the history of Sri Lankan cricket. The five previous World Cups were won by the team batting first but Ranatunga did not seem to take the said fact into account and instead chose to field first.
However, Aravinda de Silva had other plans for the night. He first dismissed Taylor (74), who was the top scorer for the Aussies, and then dismissed Ponting for 45. Australia soon collapsed from 137/1 to 170/5. They did manage to post a total of 241, thanks to Michael Bevan's unbeaten 36.
No team had emerged victorious chasing a target in a World Cup final till then and Sri Lanka, too, were in a spot of bother when both their openers got dismissed cheaply. Jayasuriya was run out for 9 and Kaluwitharana was dismissed on 6 by Damien Fleming. Sri Lanka were 23-2 and the match looked poised in favor of the Aussies.
However, the Sri Lankans were resued once again by de Silva, who scored an unbeaten 107 and guided his team to a memorable win. He added 125 runs for third wicket with Gurusinha, who scored 65 that night, and further added 97 runs with skipper Ranatunga (47) who also remained unbeaten in the chase.
Sri Lanka had thus won their maiden World Cup title and de Silva, for his all-round heroics, was named the Man of the Match.
The win was a very special moment for Sri Lankan cricket and they became a force to reckon with in international cricket thereafter. The island nation have reached the finals in the 2007 and 2011 editions of the World Cup. However, they finished runners-up on both those occassions.
The win in 1996, however, did do wonders for the tiny island nation's cricketing fortunes as it paved the way for the Sangakkaras and Jayawardenes to take up the sport with the hopes of emulating their heroes.