As I write this, the much hyped semi-final between India and Pakistan is about to commence. The respective national anthems have been sung, the respective prime ministers have gone on to the field and met the respective teams. Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani even got a pat on the tummy from Pakistani skipper Shahid Afridi, to control the butterflies perhaps.
Whatever the outcome of this match, it’s going to be two Asian teams in the final. This is unprecedented in the history of the World Cup and perhaps the strongest indicator yet of how the balance of power in the sport—in almost every way—has shifted to the subcontinent.
Teamwork: Sri Lanka have become a highly competitive side not just in ODIs but in Tests too.
But while all the fervour and debate has been about India and Pakistan—and doubtless the celebrations and post-mortems will follow for some more days—Sri Lanka’s passage to the final has been no less memorable; indeed, it is a wonderful story of a tiny island which has emerged as one of the world’s best cricketing nations.
It seems like only yesterday that Sri Lanka played as International Cricket Council (ICC) associate member in the 1975 World Cup. They made an immediate impact with a sterling performance against Australia, and when they beat India in the 1979 tournament, it was impossible to keep them away from full membership of the ICC.
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As a Test—and particularly as a One Day team—Sri Lanka’s progress in the past three decades has been rapid and impressive. They won their first Test series within four years of getting full membership when they beat India in 1985, and by 1996 were World Cup champions too.
Since then, they have been losing finalists in 2007, and have made the final in this edition too after a string of impressive performances. While both India and Pakistan may have been obsessed with their own rivalry, they should perhaps have kept an eye on Sri Lanka’s methods and performances too—in the final, either of these two teams will meet a rival who could rob them of their ultimate glory.
I’ve been a big fan of Sri Lankan cricket ever since I saw their effervescent performance in their debut Test against India in Chennai almost three decades ago. There is a buzz and fun about their cricket which bespeaks beaches, ocean and sunshine—much like the Caribbean style of old. Indeed, it is just as well that the rise of Sri Lankan cricket has coincided with the decline of West Indies cricket, else the sport would have been immeasurably poorer.
Sri Lanka’s One Day prowess has its genesis in the structure of their domestic cricket. I remember asking Duleep Mendis once in the 1980s why his team was markedly better in limited overs cricket vis-à-vis Tests. Mendis said that since their domestic matches were spread over one and a half days, they lacked the temperament for games of longer duration but had to acquire the strokes for the shorter matches.
In the years since that conversation, Sri Lanka have become a highly competitive side in Tests too, and this was best highlighted by the resolute, unblinking Arjuna Ranatunga who broke the stereotype of the mild and meek Sri Lankan cricketer by taking on the Australians in the mid-1990s.
In many ways, Ranatunga’s reign was the turning point for Sri Lankan cricket. They were no longer the babies of international cricket and easy pushovers for other teams. There was a hardened, more ambitious approach which was evident from the manner in which they battled the chucking controversy involving Muttiah Muralitharan, and used that vengeful sentiment to plot Australia’s downfall in the 1996 World Cup.
The talent in Sri Lanka had never been in doubt. Batsmen such as Mendis, Roy Dias, the Wettimunys, Ranjan Madugalle, Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan, and bowlers such as Asantha de Mel, Rumesh Ratnayakae, Ravi Ratnayake, Lasith Malinga and the peerless Muttiah Muralitharan stand comparison with players from all other countries and have helped establish Sri Lanka’s cricket credentials.
What has fascinated me even more about Sri Lankan cricket is how key players have often worked in tandem to steer their country’s fortunes, without one-upmanship or greed for power. With the administration wobbly, often in disarray, it is the selflessness of such players that seems to have come to the rescue of Sri Lankan cricket.
Mendis and Dias were buddies, so were Ranatunga and Aravinda, and Jayawardene and Sangakkara—Jayawardene even surrendered the captaincy to Sangakkara. Indeed, Jayawardene led the team into the final of the 2007 Cup, where they lost to Australia. With a little luck, if Sangakkara could help win the World Cup this year, it would be as much a homage to their friendship as it would be glory for Sri Lankan cricket.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org