Winning mental war against Aussies
In this fourth part of a five-piece interview, World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga speaks on winning the mental battle over the Australian cricket team in the lead up to the 1996 World Cup final and being angry after finding that almost the entire Sri Lankan World Cup squad has gone to see a carpet exhibition in the morning of the day of the final. He also dwells on the roles of some of the key members of the World Cup squad such as Aravinda de Silva and Asanka Gurusinghe and not so key members like Upul Chandana.
Here are the excerpts.
Question: Was the tour of Australia in 1995-96 the ideal preparation for the World Cup?
Ranatunga: Well, we had a lot of issues. Murali was called for throwing and then the ball tampering issue came up. We had sleepless nights on that tour to Australia. Every night, every single night, I used to sit with Duleep (Mendis) and discuss issues. This was a time where Roshan was struggling with his form. I suggested to Duleep that we should try out Kalu (Romesh Kaluwitharana) as an opener. Duleep looked at me and said; ‘Arju, we have enough issues, do you want to create another?’ Then I said; ‘There is no point in letting Kalu bat at number seven. He gets into 30s and gets out. If we open with Kalu, we can push Roshan to the middle-order.’ Then Duleep said; ‘No, let’s not do this because we have plenty of problems already.’ Then I asked him this; ‘Let’s go to sleep and think over it and take a decision in the morning.’
Whenever I go for breakfast, I call Duleep and we discuss a lot of things. His knowledge was vast. The next morning I asked Duleep; ‘What do you say?’ He said; ‘Well, that’s not a bad idea’ and asked, ‘have you spoken to Kalu?’ Then I said; ‘I will have a chat with Kalu and you speak to Dav.’ As we were finishing our breakfast, Aravinda walked in. I told Aravinda that there was a suggestion like that. Aravinda is not a person who worries too much. He’s easy going. The only thing he asked was this: ‘What about Roshan?’ Then I said; ‘Well, we’ll ask Roshan to bat down. Then he said okay and went off. When I told this to Kalu, his immediate response was; ‘Mawa billata dennada hadanne’ (Are you going to make me a victim?). I said there was nothing like that, but we just wanted to try out a new ploy. Then he said: ‘I have never opened’. Then I said; ‘Well, there’s a first for everything.’ What happened afterwards is history.
Question: What made you to believe that 1996 could be your tournament?
Ranatunga: Our batting. The fact that we had two openers who could change the context of the game within the first 15 overs and then we had a solid number three batsman in Gurusinghe followed by probably the best batsman at that time in Aravinda. Then we could do anything with our middle-order. If things were not working, we could push a guy like Roshan to bat higher in the order like we did in the semi-final. Our batting was flexible and that was a big advantage we had.
Question: Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing in the tour of Australia. Was it a bit of a gamble to pick him for the World Cup?
Ranatunga: It was a huge gamble. There’s one administrator who is claiming that the board never allowed me to select the squad I wanted for the 1996 World Cup. That guy had no say in matters relating to the team then. One good thing with Ana Punchihewa, the Board President then, was that he never interfered. Cricket was handled by Duleep, Dav and I. Dav looked after the coaching part while Duleep was the Manager and Chairman of Selectors. We took a big risk in picking Murali. When I went to the selection meeting, I was told that if Murali was called, we are g`oing to play the World Cup with just 13 players as only 14 players were allowed for the World Cup squads at that time. The very people who claim that they protected Murali during those problematic days told us not to pick him for the World Cup as we would have been down to 13 players. I told Duleep; ‘Let’s take this risk even if we are to go with 13 players. He was convinced and supported me. We had a few chats with the selectors and they were concerned about going with 13 players. I said, don’t worry, no one is going to call Murali in a World Cup. I told them that this tournament, where neutral umpires were running the show, the chances of Murali being called were remote. We were so lucky that people like Roy (Dias) and Ranjan (Madugalle), whenever we had issues, supported us. They don’t get the credit for the World Cup win, but, nevertheless, their contributions were crucial. Our discussions used to go on for hours and there were lots of arguments, but ultimately, when it comes to the final decision, those guys used to tell me, ‘look, you are taking the team to the field and if you are comfortable with someone, we are with you.’
Question: Was that the best you have seen of Aravinda de Silva?
Ranatunga: His knock in the semi-final was fabulous, but I have seen him getting hundreds on really bad tracks. Not bad tracks, but difficult wickets where the ball either moves or keeps low and not easy to bat. It was a treat to watch him from the other end. He was pure class. I always tell my son that the most enjoyable thing about my cricket is being able to bat with two extraordinary players. One is Roy and the other is Aravinda. Watching Aravinda’s battles with fast bowlers from the other end was priceless. When I get beaten a couple of times, I look for the single and Aravinda would hit the next ball from the middle of his bat. In that Brisbane Test Match (in 1989), when we came for lunch, Ari was on 80 and I was 20 odd. I went and checked his bat to see whether his bat was wider than mine. I felt his bat was larger than the usual ones. He made it look all too easy and he’s easily one of the best cricketers in the world.
Question: During the entire World Cup you preferred batting second. Given the way the pitch behaved in the semi-final in Calcutta, could Sri Lanka have been in trouble had you won the toss?
Ranatunga: Why we opted to chase was because we were comfortable with chasing. In the semi-final, until Tendulkar got out, there were no issues with the wicket. Maybe one odd ball jumped and stuff. Aravinda was very keen to bat first, but the rest of us, all 13, were very keen to field first. We had won our games chasing and we didn’t want to change that method. We knew the wicket could turn, but we were comfortable handling the Indian spinners. We didn’t want to change our concept that had won us games for the previous 15 or 20 days. From the quarter-finals onwards in a tournament like the World Cup, you need a bit of luck and I had that luck. Azhar (Mohammad Azharuddin) didn’t have that luck.
Question: Aravinda says his biggest worry in that tournament was ahead of the quarter-final fixture against England. Was it the same with you?
Ranatunga: Yes, mine too. I was a bit worried playing England and I remember picking the side the day before the match. Upul Chandana was supposed to play the quarter-final because we felt that England didn’t play leg-spin very well. At about 10 in the night, Upul came to my room and said he wanted to speak to me. And he asked me why we were changing the team. ‘Why don’t we go with the winning combination,’ he asked. Then I asked him; ‘Are you scared?’ ‘We have six batsmen and you can bat in the lower middle-order.’ Then he said; ‘No, I am not scared, but it’s all about experience. I would love to play one game in the World Cup, but why do we have to change the winning combination?’ I said; ‘Okay, but, anyway, be ready to play the match. We will have a chat in the morning.’ In the morning while having breakfast, I told this to Duleep and he said, ‘Arju it’s not a bad idea.’
He felt our batting was our strength. So we managed to convince Dav, who was very keen to play the leg-spinner, but eventually he too agreed. Then I called Roshan and said; ‘You will probably play, so bring your kit.’ Then Roshan said that if we wanted to play leg-spin, do so and added; ‘I don’t have any issues. Let Upul play.’ Then I said; ‘We are still thinking about the two options and there’s a cloud cover as well. Anyway, be ready to play.
During the run chase, when I got out, we still needed 40 odd runs to win and it was Hashan and Roshan who finished the game. These were the contributions from people like Upul. During the semi-final in Calcutta, Aravinda was fielding at deep mid-wicket when they started throwing bottles at us. Upul, who was the 12th man, was fielding at short mid-wicket.
I was fielding at extra-cover. Upul came running towards me and said; ‘Let me go to the deep and let Aravinda come to the ring.’ I asked why? Then he said; ‘Well, if he gets hit, we might lose him for the final.’ He took a chance and went to the deep. Marvan (Atapattu) and Pushpa (Ravindra Pushpakumara) too were great for us and I am lucky to have captained such a bunch unselfish guys.
Question: Your thoughts on Asanka Gurusinghe. Those who were involved with the team in 1996 say that he’s the unsung hero of that campaign?
Ranatunga: There’s no doubt that he’s the unsung hero. His contributions were massive during our World Cup campaign, but they don’t get mentioned in the same breadth like that of Aravinda or Sanath. That’s mainly because his style, I guess. When it mattered, he came up with goods and was consistent throughout. He’s a fighter and given the opportunity, I will always play him at number three on any day simply because I haven’t seen a better fighter than him. Gura is a very good team man as well. Both of us had the same kind of attitude. He always wanted to win and hated losing.
Question: The Aussies used to sledge at you during the Benson & Hedges series in Australia in 1995. Was there a fair bit of sledging during the World Cup final?
Ranatunga: Not really. I took them on in the pre-match media conference. I said that the Waugh brothers were ordinary cricketers and that they were highly overrated. I said the same thing about Shane Warne and repeated that in an interview just before the toss and made sure the word got across to the Australian dressing room too. It’s a mental battle. Having gone to Australia so often, I felt that we get caught in that kind of mental battles. I felt they all work in unison. The media goes after us right from the moment we land there. My fight started the day before the final. I said plenty of nasty things about them. That had an effect on them and when I walked in to bat, they started saying, ‘Oh, here comes the greatest batsman on earth. We all are ordinary cricketers.’ I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is working’. I knew they had got the message and they were desperate to prove a point.
Question: What did you do in the morning of the final?
Ranatunga: On the day of the final I felt slightly under pressure. My shoulders were a bit tight and that’s not a good feeling. There was a bit of stress. This is a World Cup final mind you. Then my mother and wife came to see me together with my son. They had come on that charter flight.
I went down for breakfast in the morning and could see Roshan and Hashan were seated in a corner. The entire Australian team, meanwhile, was very well dressed and were having breakfast on one side. After serving my breakfast, I sat with the two of them and asked where the others were?
They said there’s a carpet exhibition downstairs and they have all gone to see the carpet exhibition. I asked Roshan; ‘What, carpet exhibition?’ I told myself, ‘Oh! God!, this is the most important day in our lives and these guys are gone shopping. I was mad. Then, after breakfast, Hashan said; ‘Let’s go and take a look.’ So the three of us went down and I could see Kumar (Dharmasena) was bargaining carpets. Pushpa was bargaining carpets. Of the entire team, the only guy who was not there was Aravinda. Everyone was bargaining carpets. That’s the time I told myself; ‘Look, the Aussies are very tensed, our guys are not putting any pressure on themselves and this is ideal.’ That’s the time I thought, well, what’s the point in me getting stressed and I also started bargaining. I realised at that point that we were going to win this World Cup.