Sanath Jayasuriya had been on the international scene for some time, a bits-and-pieces player who bowled left-arm spin and batted in the lower middle-order. He was reputedly a promising player, but not many people took much notice of him. In fact, not many thought much of Sri Lankan cricket even a year before the 1996 World Cup.
But in the few months leading to the tournament, the team from the Emerald Isle started to get its act together. And Jayasuriya became a vital cog in the wheel after he was promoted to open the innings.
He blossomed during the 1995-96 tour Down Under, forging an exciting opening partnership with Romesh Kaluwitharana. The concept of hitting over the top during the first 15 overs of one-day matches when all but two fielders are clustered inside the 30-yards ring, was employed to great effect by Kiwi Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup. It was then perfected by Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana in 1996.
Here in this quarter-final at the Iqbal Stadium, the diminutive wicketkeeper departed off the 10th ball of the innings. But it was meant to be Jayasuriya's day.
He was in awesome form, and simply smashed the English bowlers out of sight in an assault the like of which has rarely been seen before or since.
He first made a mess of the plan of having left-arm spinner Richard Illingworth open the bowling. He thumped four successive boundaries off the hapless trundler. He drove through the covers, glanced fine and straight-drove as the bowler tried to maintain a tight line and length, and finally pulled savagely to the mid-wicket fence.
He then took three boundaries off a Darren Gough over. Next he turned his attention to Philip DeFreitas.
In the paceman's second over, he slammed the first ball over long-on for six. The second one was driven into the extra-cover pickets. The third went soaring into the pavilion for another six, and the next fetched him two runs. The fifth was dispatched to the mid-wicket boundary, before DeFreitas bowled a 'maiden' delivery.
That totaled 22 runs hit off the over by Jayasuriya. He had smashed a six and a four in the first over too, and DeFreitas' analysis read an embarrassing 2-0-32-0.
Jayasuriya raced to his fifty in 30 deliveries and then stepped on the accelerator even harder. It was calculated hitting at its best. When Jayasuriya went for a shot, he hit it clean. A very keen eye, wrists and forearms of steel, and decisive footwork became the hallmarks of this amazing hitter.
He simply demolished the bowling that day and it seemed that he would zoom past the fastest century in the competition, that of Clive Lloyd in 82 balls. Just on the threshold, having crashed 82 off a mere 44 balls with 13 fours and 3 sixes in just 67 minutes, Jayasuriya was stumped by Jack Russell.
It was batting at its thrilling best. Jayasuriya hit the ball with savage power, but also showed sound defense when needed. He blocked deliveries which were on target and smashed those even marginally off-line. The length did not seem to matter most of the time.
Jayasuriya tended to hit a high proportion of his runs in boundaries. In this innings he hit 70 in fours and sixes - a percentage of over 85. He was also scoreless off 19 balls out of the 44 that he faced. That meant he either presented a broad, defensive blade, or really belted the ball.
There was no pushing and prodding for Jayasuriya, and his shot-selection was terrific. He convinced the game's aficionados that he was one of the great hitters of all time as Sri Lanka coasted to an easy win with more than nine overs to spare.
England 235 for 8 wickets (50 overs), Sri Lanka 236 for 5 wickets (40.4 overs) (CWC 1996)Published 10 May 2019, 19:41 IST