Behind the scenes: Sri Lanka vs India 1996 World Cup Semi-Final, Kolkata

The 1996 World Cup Semi Final between Sri Lanka and India in is ingrained as a red letter day in our cricketing history. It’s a game which is spoken about at every given opportunity even after 24 years. There is a reason. It was a typical David versus Goliath scenario. When an underdog overwhelms a favorite it becomes a classic.

In this piece I do not attempt to merely narrate the incidents on the field, instead I intend to walk through the thought processes and emotions of both the camps in the build up and duration of the game. In the process we will come across many perspectives we have never heard and seen before. (The views shared here have been partly derived from some interesting social media revelations by Sanjay Manjrekar who was part of the Indian team for this game and Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore during their chats with Ravi Ashwin and Russel Arnold on their live videos.)

For those who cannot remember the details of the game let’s recap the proceedings so that the back stories can be understood better and their impacts analyzed

Synopsis- Sri Lanka vs India 1996 World Cup Semi Final, Kolkata

India having won the toss inserted Sri Lanka into bat. Having lost both the openers in the first over itself Sri Lanka posted a challenging 251 runs in 50 overs propelled by half centuries from Aravinda De Silva and Roshan Mahanama with the aid of useful thirties from Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tilakaratne. In reply,India were well on their way to a final berth with Sachin Tendulkar in prime form. At 98/1 Sachin departed thanks to a brilliant piece of work from Kaluwaitharana. Tony Greig on air said ” will this be a start of a slide?” and as it turned out it wasnt a slide but an avalanche which led to India crumbling to 120/8 on a deteriorating track, looking clueless to the Sri Lankan spin led by Sanath Jayasuriya. At 120/8 the crowd ran riot leading the match referee Clive Lloyd to award the game to Sri Lanka. As a nation of 20 Million went to bed with dreams of a world cup win reinvigorated, a nation of a billion across the palk strait went to bed wishing what happened to be  a bad dream.

What we saw on the ground was just the tip of the iceberg. There was much more to it than what we saw. Now let’s deep dive into this intriguing voyage dissecting the back end events

The build up to the clash

Both the teams had thrashed their opponents in the quarterfinals. Sri Lanka has ambushed the English batsman with spin and decimated the bowlers with the brutality of Sanath’s bat. Sanath’s never seen before exploits at such a critical juncture had made the Indians take note of the power of Sri Lankan opening duo even more significantly than what they would have done before. Sanath had thrashed the daylight out of the Indian line up at Delhi in the group stages together with Kaluwitharana making a mammoth chase look minuscule. As we would see later this had a significant impact on the Indian strategy.

India meanwhile had come out victorious in their biggest clash against arch rivals Pakistan. Pakistan were stronger than Sri Lanka on paper with big names. Pakistan unlike now consistently had the better of India during those times. Having beaten them, driven by emotional fanfare the Indians were on cloud nine. There was euphoria in the intervening three days before the semi finals. Even the great Sachin Tendulkar revealed recently that they felt they would beat Sri Lanka despite losing in the group stage. To be concise it is safe to say that in the prelude India were on a high and overconfident to an extent. It was the perfect setting for the law of averages to catch up. The expectations were that it was a matter or formality for India to book a ticket to Lahore. India had everything to lose, whereas  Sri Lanka had nothing. This whole aspect influenced some critical decisions to follow

The toss and the wicket

The Sri Lankans had chased clinically in every game they had played. The chases against England and India reiterated the prowess of Sri Lankan batting. They had made a mockery of the Indian target notching up 50 runs within 4 overs, decades before the invent of T20. It surely would have left a scar in the indian camp and it had as we would see soon. Further Sri Lanka had solid and experienced campaigners at 6/7 in Mahanama and Tillekaratne who had come to the rescue following mini middle order collapses in both the games mentioned. There was no reason why Sri Lanka should have changed their strategy.

However it wasn’t as straightforward. As Whatmore reveals, on the day of the game as he inspected the pitch he figured out the the soil underneath was unstable. The wicket was coming off the top. A sure indication it wasn’t going to last the distance. But would a strong leader like Arjuna change his plan?. Defintely not. As whatmore voiced his concern a confident Arjuna and the Manager Duleep Mendis stated that they will chase down anything the Indians would set. The decision was set. Win the toss and chase. Whatmore could only wonder what was in store

The Indians on the other hand had lost to Australia chasing in Mumbai and struggled against the Windies at certain points at Gwalior in another chase. They had batted first against Pakistan as well. Logically in a high pressure game they should have batted first. But they weren’t planning to do so. The reason was the impact of the Sri Lankan chase in Delhi. They Indians were so focused on negating the Lankan strength and taking them out of their comfort zone by making them set a total. A fundamental error in any form of life, trying to put the opposition at disadvantage than leveraging your own strengths. Sri Lanka and chasing couldnt be disentangled in the eyes of the opposition.

The toss went India’s way, the decision went Whatmore’s way. India decided to put Sri Lanka into bat. Whatmore was a relieved man

The worst fears come true for Sri Lanka

” We can be zero for none in no time ” this was Whatmore’s mantra for the Sri Lankan middle order. Ever since they reinvented the approach at the top of the order the Lankan think tank knew they could be in such a situation. Though Kalu had got out early against England ,Sanath stole the show. Against Kenya and India both of them had given flying starts. So such a situation hadn’t been encountered before. As Srinath sent Sanath and Kalu in the first over itself caught at third man the worst every lankan feared had come true. But that’s how they were instructed to approach the innings. Otherwise Sanath’s shot selection  would have been crucified. But the experienced Lankan middle order was prepared for it. Afterall according to Whatmore it was the experience and solidity in the middle order that propelled such an all out strategy at the top. Being prepared is one but executing is another. Would the Lankan middle order be upto the task was the million dollar question

As Sri Lanka’s worst fears came true it was exactly the opposite for India. This in hindsight backfired for India. As Manjrekar would real the Indians had decided the lankans were a two batsman team. Pluck them both out soon then the game is sealed is what India believed. That was their thought process. The Indian team had spent 55 minutes out of one hour, focusing on how to get both the openers out in their team meetings.  This was surely an aftereffect of the mauling in Delhi. This was one of the reasons they had planned to use Kumble, their trump card early in the innings. A strategy that backfired, as to why?, I’d explain later. However in summary by zoning in too much on Sanath and Kalu the Indian team had missed the forest for the trees. They couldnt be faulted. The onslaught in Delhi by Sanath and Kalu took opening batting to a different stratosphere which left the Indian team traumatized.

Ignore Aravinda at your own peril. Pay the price later

The Indians by Manjrekars admission hadn’t been bothered much about Aravinda. But how could they is beyond anyone’s  imagination. But if we really dig deep you’d find an answer. Aravinda’s knocks of note had come against minnows Zimbabwe and Kenya. Against India and Englad he did not accomplish much of note in the previous games.  This was a major plus for Sri Lanka. It was Sanath who had decimated both the better known oppositions. Aravinda was definitely not at the top of their minds

As for Sri Lanka, Arjuna knew who his match winner was. Keep Aravinda happy he will win us the games was his belief. That was a well known philosophy in the Sri Lankan dressing room. Cometh the hour cometh the man. Aravinda bought down the high riding Indians by smashing a 66 off just 47 deliveries out of the 85 scored by the time of his departure. The innings gave the time for Mahanama and Ranatunga to build an innings and guide to a respective total. Just imagine the magnitude of that knock. In front of a hundred thousand capacity scoring almost 80% of the team’s total at a rate of 140 in that era was just extraterrestrial excellence.

In the process by forcing Kumble take the new ball India missed out using him during the latter part of the innings with a softer ball. As Manjrekar goes on to say it was a mistake in hindsight as he felt Kumble would have got more purchase than the other Indian spinners. Despite getting Aravinda’s wicket the ploy of bowling Kumble had a significant opportunity cost for India

The sheer awe and aura about the way Sanath and Kalu batted had indirectly let Aravind do what he could do best on the stage that mattered the most.

As Sri Lanka reached 251 in their allotted 50 overs the Indian dressing room genuinely felt they had the game covered with renowned players of spin. Understandably so. The Lankan attack didnt have a leader of the pack. Vass and Murali were young. With no significant firepower in bowling a batting line up that thrashed Waqar and co had every right to feel they had the cahse covered. More than any of that they had a prodigy in Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar who was batting like a dream. There wasnt anything that seemed impossible for him with a bat in hand. Surely it had to be India. It was their tournament for the taking. At least that’s what the Indian camp felt

Sachin’s crime- it’s not easy for mere mortals as it is for geniuses

The problem with geniuses is that they give a false sense of hope and security for mere mortals. By Manjrekar’s own admission the Indian team knew Sachin was a genius by that time. They were accustomed to playing second fiddle. Manjrekar being a senior to Sachin from Mumbai itself played the apt supporting role setting India up on the right track, following Sidhu’s early loss. However it was criminal on Sachin’s part to make batting look so easy on a minefield of a wicket. It may have given a false sense of security to those in the dressing room. At 98/1 all was well for India. Sri Lanka’s dreams were starting to crumble

A moment that gave millions goosebumps- Little Kalu to the fore  

At 98/1 Sachin tried to glide a Sanath Jayasuriya delivery to fine leg. The ball trickled down the leg, Sachin blindly took off a single only to see Kalu dislodge the bails. As the replays found Sachin short Tony Greig uttered ” Will this be the the start of a slide”. Billions prayed for it not to be, millions on the other side hoped it would be. Nevertheless Sri Lanka stated believing and it gave the nation goosebumps

Dharmasena’s beckoning smile and implicit message

As Sachin left the Indian skipper Azhar walked in. As per Manjrekar one of the first deliveries he faced from Dharmasena, spun viciously and bounced making it clear to the Indian team that the wicket wasnt anywhere close to what Sachin made it look like. The smile on Dharmasena’s face resembling a kid who got his favorite christmas gift early was an implicit message that the lankans believed they were well and truly in it. Manjrekar the non striker states that he too felt the same. There was apprehension in the Indian camp.

The avalanche and the ending

From that point onwards it wasnt a collapse but an avalanche. The indian batting crumbled like a pack of cards on a minefield of a track to the Lankan spinner led by the left arm spin of Sanath Jayasuriya. 7 wickets fell within the space of 22 runs and putting bat on ball seemed to be a herculean task. With disappointment building in the stands the crowds tried to act smart by disrupting the game. At 120/8 Sri Lanka’s ticket to Lahore was booked.

However there were some minds which wondered whether India could have pulled off a miracle through Kumble and Kambli?

At least the Indian camp felt there was no chance

As per Manjrekar the Indian camp felt the game was gone. Kambli wasn’t having the best of series and the chances of him pulling off a hesit was very remote. So in reality on minefield like that,with enough overs left for the Sri Lankan spinners was a far fetched task. That was Manjrekar’s take shedding insight on one of the questions that could have lingered in the minds of some fans.

Just like that one of the most memorable games in Sri Lankan cricketing folklore concluded. What followed was the completion of one of the most loved fairytales in cricketing history.

But as they say it may not have been possible had the flip of the coin gone the other way or the ball had gone wide of Kaluwitharana.

But it’s when such little moments go one’s way that bigger things transpire and that the beauty of life and cricket

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