Cricket’s Greatest Celebration

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The participants of the ICC Cricket World Cup were welcomed to England by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself at SW1A 1AA – the postcode for Buckingham Palace. The ten captains posted for an official photograph with the Queen and Sri Lankan skipper Dimuth Karunaratne posted the picture on Instagram with the title ‘priceless’.

Looking back at the tournament which is 45 years old, cricket has come a long way. The inaugural edition in 1975 generated little revenue but today the sport’s showpiece event is a multibillion dollar business thanks to the television. Apart from the US$ 4 million each of the ten participating countries receive, the winners will take home as much as US$ 10 million as prize money. Furthermore, millions of dollars will be spent to develop the game at grass root levels and to take sport to places which have seen little cricket.

Sri Lankan cricket has come a long way as well. In 1970s, if you were given a choice between death and facing Clive Lloyd’s mean fast bowlers without helmets, there was not much of difference. That was exactly what the Sri Lankans got in the inaugural World Cup in 1975 as West Indies were their first opponents. Anura Tennekoon’s side was shot out for 86 as the game ended well before lunch. Those Sri Lankans who had taken the train ride from London to Manchester returned home having not witnessed a single ball.

That day the Sri Lankans were not bodily harmed though. A week later it was a different story. At the London Oval, they nearly pulled off a miracle as they got off to a terrific start chasing Australia’s target.  Having run out of all options, Captain Ian Chappell ordered his premier fast bowler Jeff Thomson to shake up the Sri Lankans and what followed was a series of short pitched bowling aimed at the body.

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Duleep Mendis was hit on the forehead by a Thomson thunderbolt and collapsed to the ground. The Aussie great was clocking 150kmph those days and as Duleep was about to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, another Sri Lankan collapsed.  Sunil Wettimuny was hit on the foot and withdrew with a broken foot.

A London policeman doing the hospital rounds had noticed a severely hurt Mendis lying on the bed in pain. Above his bed was a chart giving details about the patient. When the policeman noticed that ‘cause for injury’ was ‘hit by Thomson’, the compassionate policeman asked Duleep, ‘Sir, do you want to press charges against Mr. Thomson’.

Ian Chappell wouldn’t have thought in his wildest of dreams that 20 years later he would be conducting the post match presentation when the Sri Lankans gave his countrymen a taste of their own medicine by winning the ICC Cricket World Cup in Lahore.  Mendis was on cloud nine as he was the Manager cum Chairman of Selectors of the World Cup winning side.

There is a YouTube clip of Chappell calling up Most Valuable Player Sanath Jayasuriya to the podium for a chat after the 1996 final and Sanath sheepishly trying to hide. He had to be pushed to the podium by his captain. Later the Master Blaster went onto claim that playing fast bowling was child’s play to him but what he feared most was Ian Chappell with the microphone after the game.

He went onto master the Queen’s language and held his own during many a press conference when he was captain of the side. If he didn’t understand a question, then he would diplomatically reply, ‘No comments.’

While his audacious stroke play ended the careers of two international cricketers – Manoj Prabahkar of India and Phil Defreitas of England – it also made a complete mockery of the coaching manual. Jayasuriya gave no respect for age old concepts like getting the eye in before playing the shots and playing with a straight bat. His theory was if the first ball of the game is there to be hit, he would hit it with brutal force, mostly cross bat and over the head of helpless fielders.

Having been repeatedly at the receiving end of Jayasuriya onslaughts, Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar went onto comment, ‘I have not seen Sir Don Bradman, but I have seen Sanath Jayasuriya.’ When the IPL was set up and  the Ambanis brought the Mumbai Indians franchise, they gave Sachin a free hand to chose the players he wanted. The first name he chose was Jayasuriya and the Ambanis paid him US$ 1 million per season.

Very few countries could boast of Sri Lanka’s consistency in World Cups. In the last four editions of the tournament, they have been losing finalists twice and losing semi-finalists once.  They have come so close to win cricket’s coveted prize on more than one occasion but denied by a dropped catch, missed stumping or a run out.

Chaminda Vaas’ record of a hat-trick off the first three balls of the game in 2003 and Lasith Malinga’s four wickets in four balls to turn the contest against South Africa in the 2007 edition on its head or Aravinda de Silva’s stunning stroke play at the Centurion against Australia have earned the plaudits of cricket experts around the globe. Sri Lankans will continue to entertain the world at cricket’s showpiece event.

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