Ranatunga masterminded Lanka's '96 WC victory: Upul Chandana
Some people are destined to watch the unfolding of history from the ringside. Upul Chandana is one of them.
The leg-spinner, who played 147 ODIs and 16 Tests, was part of Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup winning side, but he didn't get a game the whole tournament. But that hardly mattered to him then, and even now.
"I am a World Cup winner for my country. It does not matter whether I was in the playing 11 or not. The victory was the result of team work," Chandana told PTI.
The Lankans entered that tournament, held across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as the underdogs.
But Chandana said the squad was quietly confident as captain Arjuna Ranatunga kept them in good spirits.
"Before the World Cup, Arjuna ensured that all the team members remained in a good mood. We were gathered in Colombo. He went out of his way to provide the players, especially from outside the city, with all the facilities like training and accommodation," the leg-spinner said.
"We felt like a big family going into the tournament, and the captain never let anything ruin that atmosphere. His captaincy played a big part in us winning the maiden World Cup," said Chandana.
Chandana, who is now a full-time coach, remembered Ranatunga as a shrewd tactician, whose strategic acumen were way ahead of the time.
"It was after his thought that we used Sanath (Jayasuriya) and Kalu (Romesh Kaluwitharana) as openers. It was a masterstroke as other teams were not ready for that kind of batting in Power Plays," said Chandana.
Both Australia and West Indies did not travel to Sri Lanka because of security concerns following a suicide bombing at Central Bank, and Sri Lanka adjudged winners by walkover.
Their lone big opponent in the group stage was India, a match they won by 6 wickets at Feroz Shah Kotla.
"There was a bit of anger around because they (Australia and WI) refused to travel to Sri Lanka. But once we defeated India in New Delhi, we knew that we could beat other teams as well and people began to take us more seriously," said Chandana.
Sri Lanka entered the knockout stages with an unblemished record in the group stage. But their litmus test came in the semifinals against India at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata.
Chandana said the crowd ruckus during the match was an unnerving experience for them.
"It was a big game and India were favourites as they were playing at home. The crowd became very agitated once India started losing wickets, and they were throwing some things into the ground."
"I was the 12th man because Roshan Mahanama was having cramps. So, I went up to Arjuna and told him that let me field near the boundary because Aravinda (De Silva) was standing there. He was our most important player and was in form. I did not want anything happen to him,” said Chandana.
Chandana also remembered how the players were escorted back to the team hotel accompanied by heavy security after that match.
However, Chandana had a chance to be in the 11 after the team decided to pick him for the quarterfinal against England at Faisalabad.
"They wanted another spinner, and Roshan (Mahanama) was to be rested. But he was playing well. In the team meeting, I told Arjuna not to pick me. He did not like it and asked me: 'Why? Are you afraid to play?'"
"So, I told him not to tinker a winning combination. After a short chat, also involving team manager (Duleep Mendis) he agreed to continue with the same eleven. I have no regrets over that decision," added Chandana.
Once they reached Sri Lanka after emerging the champions, Chandana said the team was accorded a massive welcome.
Coincidentally, Sunil Wettimuny, a former Sri Lankan cricketer, was the pilot of the chartered flight that carried the players home from Lahore.
"I have never experienced anything like that in my life. Usually, the drive from airport to the city takes an hour or something but we were on road for some 6 or 7 hours."
"Later, the (SL) President arranged a reception for us and lot of celebrations followed. That day Sri Lanka stood still,” he signed off.