19.53. That was Sanath Jayasuriya’s One Day International (ODI) batting average going into the 1996 Cricket World Cup. One shock World Cup trophy and Man of the Series award later, Jayasuriya had cemented his name in cricketing folklore and would go on to become one of the greatest all-rounders of the modern era in limited overs cricket.
By the time the Sri Lankans took on the game’s innovators, England, the stage was set for one of the greatest performances in the tournament’s history. This was not just a cricketer who had his day; here was a game changer. The pinch-hitter was born.
England and Sri Lanka met in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final in Faisalabad’s Iqbal Stadium. The stadium did not evoke fond memories for England. When it played host to England in their 1987-88 tour of Pakistan, their finger-wagging captain Mike Gatting got into an ugly, verbal duel with home umpire Shakoor Rana. A day’s play was lost and bad blood lingered.
Michael Atherton, the leader of England’s ODI team in 1996, was lamented by the world press after labelling a local journalist a “buffoon” during the quarter-final pre-match press conference. Atherton won the toss but England’s luck diminished thereafter.
All-rounder Phil DeFreitas was the only England batsman to post a respectable total (67), as England’s scraped their way to 235-8 during their 50 overs. It could have been worse. After being 173-7 at one stage, Dermot Reeve and Darren Gough’s 62-run partnership was a record eighth wicket stand for England in ODIs. Spinning trio Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Dharmasena and Muttiah Muralitharan picked up two wickets apiece.
After the break, Jayasuriya took to the crease with Romesh Kaluwitharana. This was the opening pair that had already smashed 43 runs in three overs against India and 50 in four overs against Kenya in the 1996 World Cup thus far. Jayasuriya injected a sense of mischief, power and freedom at the top of the order, notifying opposing bowlers through his destructive strokes: it doesn’t matter where you bowl; I’m going to hit you hard.
Taking advantage of fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs, Jayasuriya took batting aggression to a greater level during his knock at the Iqbal Stadium. The Master Blaster’s fifty was reached with a thump through cover off of the bowling of Phil De Freitas and came off just thirty deliveries, equalling the World Cup record for the fastest half-century.
There was another record in his sights – the fastest World Cup hundred. Kapil Dev’s century in the 1983 World Cup came off just 72 balls. It was not to be, however, as Jayasuriya fell for 82 – incredibly, off just 44 balls.
England opted for an unorthodox approach in order to contain Sri Lanka’s explosive opening pair. Off-spinner Richard Illingworth surprisingly opened the innings but went for 17 runs in the fourth over. England’s star bowler Darren Gough also went for 15 in his second over.
DeFreitas then suffered the onslought as Jayasuriya struck an audacious blow over long-on for six before firing at the pavilion roof over long-off for another maximum. The 22 runs that came off the over was just one shy of the most expensive over in World Cup history. Despite his efforts with the bat, De Freitas’ 3.4 overs went for 38 runs at an economy rate of 10.36.
A sensational stumping by Jack Russell off the bowling of Dermot Reeve –who had bowled him out the previous delivery only for a no-ball to be called – killed the dream of Jayasuriya notching the World Cup’s fastest ton. The scoreboard read 113-2 with the departing Jayasuriya contributing a rather useful 82.
Sri Lanka reached 236-5 with over nine overs left of their innings. Sri Lanka made the semis for the first time in World Cup history, while it was the first time England failed to reach the last four. Defying cricketing powerhouses India and Australia, Sri Lanka would go on to be crowned champions of cricket’s most revered tournament – one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.
Sanath Jaysuriya brought about a new era in the one-day format, one that precipitated the birth of Twenty20 cricket in 2003; if the Indian Premier League (IPL) had been born in Jayasuriya’s prime, the opening batsman would have commanded a lofty price tag. The likes of Adam Gilchrist, Herchelle Gibbs, Brendon McCullum, Virendar Sehwag and fellow countryman Tillakeratne Dilshan would follow in his footsteps as powerful hitters at the peak of the order.