By Dinouk Colombage
The infamous 1995/96 tour of Australia by the Sri Lankan cricket team saw the start of a now famous rivalry and also the germination of a degree of animosity towards the Australian cricket team. It was during this tour that Sri Lanka showed the world they were no longer the underdogs of world cricket. Furthermore they commanded the respect and adulation of opposition teams. This included the once mighty Australian team.
During the Boxing Day test match back in ’95 against Australia, Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled seven times in three overs. Australian umpire Daryl Hair, who was officiating in the match, wanted his 15 minutes of fame and proceeded to no-ball Muralitharan citing that his action was illegal. The controversy boiled over into the one-day matches against England and Australia in the 1998 tour. Australian umpire Ross Emerson called Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing resulting in captain Arjuna Ranatunga leading his players to the boundary line threatening to walk out. After several minutes of discussions between the umpires and Ranatunga the match was resumed.
This was the point that saw Muttiah Muralitharan become a target of the Australian team and public alike. Following this incident along with the taunting by the crowds Murali refused to tour Australia on two subsequent occasions.
Following the 1995/96 tour of Australia, Sri Lanka went on to win the 1996 World Cup final against Australia. The Australian team had taken notice of this sub-continent team and were now wary of them. They recognised that Sri Lanka had an aggressive and effective captain in Arjuna Ranatunga; explosive batsman at the top of the order and players of sheer class in the middle. They also identified Muralitharan as a match-winning bowler.
With ‘no-balling’ no longer an option the Aussies then resorted to the second best they could do to unsettle the determined Sri Lankans – they began sledging and hounded the team whenever they met on the playing field. The Australian media also joined in. Headlines in the local newspapers screamed that the Sri Lankan team was weak and scared.
For many back home in Sri Lanka this period marked the start of the rivalry with Australia. The Sri Lankan public took it upon themselves to support the team and they did this by doing ‘an Australia’ themselves.
The question that must be asked was whether this approach by the Australians was detrimental or beneficial. Speaking to a player from the 1998 tour of Australia, he explained that the team was ‘lifted’ by the approach of the Australians. ‘Australia was the world force in international cricket, the continuous sledging in a strange way kept us going. It was told to us that they feared us.’
The player went on to describe how initially the no-balling of Murali was disappointing but Arjuna Ranatunga stood by his bowler, which helped to ‘gel as a team’. When questioned about the Australian media, he responded by stating that ‘We went there as underdogs once again, the media focused on us more than the English. It was exciting to think we had replaced the euphoria of the Ashes.’
When asked about the conduct of the Australian players during the games, he explained that ‘they played a tough, aggressive game on the field, but were all smiles and laughter afterwards.’
Unknowingly, Australia’s aggressive approach towards the Sri Lankan team enabled them to become a stronger team. For many years cricket pundits had described the team as being ‘talented yet lacking the mental edge’. The tour of Australia went a long way in honing this edge.
Australia and Sri Lanka have continued to boast a healthy rivalry on the cricket fields of the world, having met in the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup and the finals of the 2007 World Cup. Despite those games having ended in losses for the local lads, the gulf between the two teams has clearly diminished. For many past and present players, the 1998 tour of Australia was the defining moment. It was the point at which Australia unsuspectingly polished the mental game of Sri Lanka.