Column | Arjuna Ranatunga – captain courageous

Arjuna Ranatunga
Arjuna Ranatunga at the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Colombo on November 6, 2023. File photo: AFP/Ishara S Kodikara

If India winning the World Cup in 1983 is widely recognised as the greatest upset in the history of this championship, the victory of Sri Lanka in the 1996 edition can be termed as the second biggest surprise. Though the players from the island nation had carved a name for themselves as gritty fighters, no one in their right senses would have believed that they stood a chance to carry the trophy with them to Colombo when the tounament started. But the set of plucky cricketers did their nation proud by winning all their matches with convincing margins to emerge as proud winners.

During this period, Sri Lanka was battling a protracted civil war. The overall security situation was so bad that Australia and the West Indies decided to skip the games held there, even though it involved conceding points. The cricket team had come under the cloud of controversy during the tour of Australia in 1995-96, when Muttiah Muralitharan, their off-spinner, was called for “chucking” by umpire Darrell Hair. Hence one could be forgiven for not giving the side much of a chance to advance beyond the league phase of the championship, when it commenced.

However, Sri Lanka shocked the followers of the game the world over by a series of outstanding performances in the tournament. There were many heroes in this squad - the amazing Sanath Jayasuriya, the brilliant Aravinda de Silva, the enigmatic Muralitharan, the hard working Chaminda Vaas, the dependable Asanka Gurusinha and the dashing Romesh Kaluwitharana. But the X-factor that lent the side an ultra sharp edge and converted the bunch of outstanding, yet flashy players, into a champion team was the leadership of Arjuna Ranatunga, their extraordinary skipper who steered the side through the choppy waters with elan and flair.

Ranatunga was a member of the playing eleven when Sri Lanka made their debut in international cricket in Colombo in 1982. Though only 18 years old and the youngest member of the side, Ranatunga displayed a maturity far beyond his age in his first appearance at the highest level. He walked in to bat when his side had lost 4/34 and the England bowlers, led by Bob Willis and Ian Botham, were threatening to run through the rest of the line-up. He stabilised the innings in the company of Ranjan Madugalle, with who he added 99 runs for the fifth wicket. Ranatunga’s contribution to this partnership was 54 runs, which included seven crisp hits to the fence, and in the process he became the first Sri Lankan cricketer to score a half-century in Test cricket. This performance by Ranatunga with the willow ensured that though Sri Lanka lost the match by seven wickets, they were not disgraced.

Sri Lankan cricket administration had recognised the talents of Ranatunga very early and he was honoured with the Observer Sri Lankan Schoolboy cricketer award on two occasions - 1980 and 1982. When an Indian Under-20 side under Ravi Shastri visited Sri Lanka in 1980, Ranatunga was a member of Sri Lankan side of the corresponding age group. He showcased his talents with an unbeaten innings of 128 in the first “Test” played between the two sides. Thus, he was ready to take on the challenges at the International level when he was selected to the Sri Lankan squad that took on England in their maiden test in February, 1982.

Muralitharan, de Silva and Ranatunga
From left: Sri Lankan legends Muttiah Muralitharan, Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga at the Galle International Cricket Stadium on June 29, 2022. File photo: AFP/Ishara S Kodikara

The years after 1982 saw Ranatunga cement his place in the national side through a series of consistent performances. The tour of some top cricketers to South Africa, which resulted in them being banned from the game by the Sri Lankan Board for 25 years, helped to a certain extent as it deprived the selectors of a big talent pool. He struck centuries against India and Pakistan in Test matches during 1985 and 1986, with both knocks coming in Colombo. The effort against Pakistan was more significant as it helped the hosts avoid a defeat against an attack comprising Imran Khan, Abdul Qadir and Wasim Akram.

Ranatunga started attracting the attention of followers of the game in a big way after being appointed as captain of the national side. Besides being a good thinker of the game and a shrewd tactician, he quickly earned a name for himself as a combative and aggressive leader who was not afraid to stand up and question any injustice or unfair treatment meted out to any player in his side. This approach helped to instil confidence in the players and helped them to come out of the pessimistic attitude that had enveloped them following a series of defeats. Ranatunga was a no nonsense skipper and backed his players to the hilt. This strategy started paying off as the team managed to wipe off the tag of being the whipping boys. His positive outlook and leadership skills contributed considerably towards moulding the players together into a fighting unit.

The high point of Ranatunga’s captaincy was the triumph in 1996 ICC World Cup. But any account of this victory should start with the tour of Australia in the winter of 1995-96. Statistics would tell that Australia won the three-Test series 3-0, with the hosts lording over the visitors. However, it was evident to all observers that Sri Lanka had become a tougher and more determined side by the time the third Test was played. This also resulted in the winning margin come down from an innings and 36 runs in the first Test to 148 runs in the last. The main factor that brought about this change was the action of umpire Hair, who called Muralitharan for “throwing” in the second Test.

Numerous experts had expressed their reservations about the fairness of the bowling action of Muralitharan ever since the off-spinner started playing cricket at the international level. However, no umpire had taken the extreme step of calling and signalling “no ball” on account of Muralitharan’s action in the 22 Tests that the bowler had played till the one at Melbourne in 1995. But Hair, who was standing at the bowler’s end, “no-balled” Muralitharan seven times in a span of three overs in this Test, sending shock waves across the cricket fraternity. Incidentally, the other umpire did not find anything wrong with Muralitharan’s action, when the bowler sent down deliveries from that end. The action of Hair rankled the Sri Lankan side and Ranatunga left the field for a short time to consult with the team management in the dressing room to decide on the next course of action. Finally, Ranatunga removed Muralitharan from the attack and brought him on to bowl from the other end.

Though the issue was temporarily solved in this manner, the incident and the bad press that followed in its wake enraged the entire Sri Lankan side. This was evident form their body language from the next game onwards when they started playing like men possessed. Further, this also brought the players together as a unit and the resultant bonding was one of the factors that led to their excellent run during the 1996 World Cup.

Arjuna Ranatunga
Arjuna Ranatunga on his return home after winning the 1996 World Cup. File photo: AFP/Sena Vidanagama

Ranatunga marshalled his resources brilliantly during the World Cup. His decision to move Jayasuriya up the order and make him open the innings with Kaluwitharana yielded rich dividends as the side made maximum use of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. De Silva was in splendid touch with both bat and ball through the tournament and played critical role in both semifinals and finals. Vaas and Muralitharan led the bowling department, with able support from Jayasuriya, de Silva and Kumar Dharmasena. The team functioned like a well-oiled machine, with the skipper guiding their fortunes with aplomb. The image of the portly captain controlling the proceedings from his vantage position at short midwicket will remain etched in the minds of fans of this sport privileged to see the tournament. Fittingly, it was Ranatunga who scored the winning runs in the final and the team they were humbled were none other than the Aussies.

Life on the cricket field was not a bed of roses for Ranatunga after this win. Sri Lanka won the Asia Cup in 1997 but their performances slipped by several notches in the 1999 ICC World Cup and he was sacked following the poor performance of his side. He did not play in limited overs matches after this but continued to turn out for the national side in Tests till 2000.

anatunga turned to administration and politics after his retirement from the game. His brief innings as Chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket ended in controversy over selection of players. But he fared better in the political arena where he became a Deputy Minister for Industry and Tourism in 2004 and Cabinet Minister for Highways, Port and shipping in 2015.

Ranatunga was not the best of batsmen nor the greatest of captains but he possessed the capability to utilise the resources available to him with audacity and grit. He chose to be confrontational during a period when sides from the subcontinent generally preferred to avoid showdowns. This made him get under the skin of many a opponent but in the end even Shane Warne, who had not disguised his dislike for the Sri Lankan skipper, had to grudgingly admit his admiration for Ranatunga’s methods. The success that Sri Lanka accomplished in 1996 owes more to his abilities to get the best out of his players than anything else. He was also the first captain who demonstrated successfully that it was possible to upstage the Aussies in gamesmanship. For this reason alone, he would be remembered by followers of the game from this part of the globe for a very long time.

Ranatunga celebrated his 60th birthday on December 1. Here is wishing him happiness, joy and good health in the years ahead.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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