Dav Whatmore was Sri Lanka's head coach at the 1996 Cricket World Cup, which the island nation won under the leadership of Arjuna Ranatunga. Whatmore relives the journey of Sri Lanka's maiden World Cup trophy which began much before the start of the tournament in Australia. In this conversation with Shubham Pandey, he speaks on the opening pair that proved decisive for Sri Lanka and also a bit on the controversial semi-final against India in Calcutta.
We (Sri Lankans) were very keen to make an impression after having been hammered by Australia in Australia. Just a month before the World Cup had begun, we had toured Australia and were beaten very badly. They were also in our group in the World Cup. When we got the opportunity to play them in the final, we saw it as a chance to even the scores. But before the finals, there were a number of hurdles to overcome. We were going to play India in India, not once but twice. That was one of the hurdles. But I have to admit that the boys were very focussed.
In those conditions and the way our batting was working, I somewhere knew that we were always going to be a threat. But to win it, I am not very sure that everybody had thought of before the final. But it became evident as we went along.
The one move that did the trick for us was opening the batting with Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya. It was Duleep Mendis who seeded that idea into me. We were playing in Australia and Duleep came up to me and suggested bringing Romesh up in batting order.
He said, "How would it be if we open with Romesh Kaluwitharana?" And immediately, the penny dropped. It was like a light suddenly switched on in a dark room. Kaluwitharana was one of the sweetest hitters of the ball. He used to bat at No 7 and when he used to come in to bat at that position, generally fielders were spread out in the outfield. He would play beautifully and then in pursuit of hitting big shots, would get caught in the deep. With just two fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the first fifteen overs, the idea by Duleep resonated with me immediately. We just went ahead with it and put it into practice straightaway. We watered it, fertilised it, and grew it.
Jayasuriya was an aggressive player anyway. To have both of them relax and play their natural game knowing that the next five batsmen can easily get a hundred themselves felt really good.
We played well and reached the semis, where we had to meet hosts India. In the semi-final against India, when we scored 240 runs (251), I knew India were never going to get that. We felt like that because that wicket at Eden Gardens was never going to last 100 overs.
India started off well in the chase and played well with the new ball but the pitch was never going to allow them chase the total because the ball was turning square. It was a blessing in disguise that Sri Lanka lost the toss and India put us into bat. I was so relieved when the toss happened and we lost it. Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga was also thinking of choosing to bowl first, which could have been a big mistake. But we lost the toss and I was so relieved that we had to put runs on the board and not chase on that track.
In the end, the way (Indian) fans reacted was a little bit disappointing but it is understandable to a point. This was Eden Gardens. The passions run high there. The second time when the match was interrupted, match referee in that game Clive Lloyd just said no. There was no hesitation in his mind to award us the game. But I can tell you that India was not going to win that match anyway.
When we landed in Sri Lanka, there were many people who had come to welcome us. People had lined up all the way in the streets. The city is 25 to 30 kms away from the airport. We went straight to the President's house. The fans were lining up the whole journey. It was something totally different at that stage for me. It was a wonderful experience. We were all very excited at that stage. It was, after all, a World Cup victory.