A tour that shaped Sri Lankan cricket

14 Jun 1995: Aravinda De Silva batting for Kent against Somerset in the Benson & Hedges semi-final.

The national cricket team is currently in Pakistan engaging in a bilateral series as their cricket board is striving hard to bring the sport back into the country after exorbitant costing in their neutral venue in United Arab Emirates made them to feel the pinch. 

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Incidentally, it was a tour of Pakistan in 1995 that shaped the future of Sri Lankan cricket as Arjuna Ranatunga’s side started dominating the sport for three years from thereon. 

Sri Lanka by the mid 1990s had an extremely experienced side and with the arrival of Dav Whatmore the team adopted a more scientific approach towards most aspects of the game while Alex Kontouris had raised the players’ fitness standards by leaps and bounds. On this tour, Sri Lanka realized their full potential, winning both the Test and ODI series. What is more significant is that both series victories were come-from-behind ones. It was also the first time that Sri Lanka won multiple Tests matches in a series away from home. The Test series win was vital as not many teams had come to Pakistan and won a series there. 

The tour started in horrendous fashion though. Sri Lanka crashed to a heavy defeat in the warm-up game and then were crushed by an innings in the opening Test match in Peshawar. Pakistan posted 459 for nine declared without a single batsman scoring a hundred. All batters chipped in and there were doubts about Sri Lanka’s ability to take 20 wickets in a Test match. Then there was also the menace of Wasim Akram, who took seven wickets in the opening game and was named Man of the Match. 

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Not that the Sri Lankans were breathing easy against other seamers whose names were Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed. The attack was completed by a little heard off-spinner who troubled the batsmen with a delivery that turned away from the right-hander. Bowled without changing the action, the tourists struggled to cope with this delivery. It was the other one and was promptly named ‘doosra’ meaning the second one in Urdu. 

Despite the heavy loss in the opening Test, all hope was not lost for the Sri Lankans as the team’s premier batsman was yet to arrive in Pakistan. Aravinda de Silva had been held up in England representing Kent during the last stages of the championship and arrived straight to Faisalabad from Heathrow. 

Faisalabad is a place that Aravinda loves. He turned 20 there in 1985 and on that day reached his maiden Test hundred as well. Aravinda being Aravinda, didn’t merely get to three figures but reached there in style. He hooked Imran Khan of all people as his parents Sam and Irangani watched from the stands. 

Ten years later, he was in Pakistan again, this time to celebrate his 30 birthday and it didn’t all go to plan as he was dismissed for a second ball duck – a return catch to Saqlain. 

Sri Lanka hung in there in that game thanks to a back to the wall hundred by Hashan Tillakaratne. Yet, their total of 232 all out was well below par. Pakistan were set for an unassailable 2-0 series lead when they finished with a first innings lead of 110 runs. Aravinda produced a master class effort in the second essay posting a fine hundred. 

The bowlers then defended 252 runs brilliantly to square the series.  Sri Lanka won by 42 runs and the series was going to be decided in Sialkot. 

Sri Lanka’s bowlers emerged on top yet again proving that they were good enough to win Test matches as the visitors completed a 144-run win to seal the series 2-1. It was a remarkable effort given how badly they had started the series. Muttiah Muralitharan with 15 wickets and Chaminda Vaas with 13 scalps stole the limelight while Hashan Tillakaratne was outstanding with the bat, coming up with several match winning knocks and was named Player of the Series.

In the ODIs too, Sri Lanka lost the opening game in Gujranwala before winning in Faisalabad and Rawalpindi to secure the series 2-1. Arjuna Ranatunga was Player of the Series. 

While the individual brilliance of players won them games, one aspect that Sri Lanka were well ahead of their opponents was fielding. A crucial run out or a half chance helped them to seize momentum at important junctures. 

Having recorded such come from behind series wins, Sri Lanka had the confidence that they could compete with the best in the world. Immediately after that tour, they went to Sharjah and won the Singer Cup tri-nation tournament. Then followed the highly controversial tour of Australia that toughened them up further and by the time the World Cup came, nothing was going to stop them. 

>> Rex’s column <<