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February 11, 2005
It's strange that it took a tragedy of the enormity of the tsunami to bring together people whose relationships had been strained over the years. Past enmities were forgotten and there was camaraderie not experienced before when Shane Warne, the Australian spin icon and currently Test cricket's highest wicket-taker, made a brief visit to Sri Lanka.
Whatever differences Warne had with the former Test captain Arjuna Ranatunga and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's own spin king, were soon forgotten at the 500 Club charity dinner, where there was a touch of bonhomie, handshakes and bearhugs all round, all in the name of tsunami relief. Ranatunga said that it was only the second time in his life that he had seen the whole country come together in one voice, the first being when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996.
The relationship between Warne and Murali, his main rival for the Test-wicket record, has never been as smooth as it was sometimes made out to be, while the tirades between Warne and Ranatunga continued even after Ranatunga retired from the game.
But in one night everything was forgotten. Ranatunga, now the deputy minister of tourism, welcomed Warne with open arms, but still indulged in some mickey-taking, saying that 50% of his autobiography, which he is currently writing, would be about Warne.
Warne said he was touched by what he witnessed during his three days in Sri Lanka, where he travelled to the affected areas down south. He said that the Galle stadium, where he picked up his 500th Test wicket, has a special place in his heart, and he was determined to help restore the ground to its former pristine glory, by donating money from the Shane Warne Foundation and the City of Melbourne.
Seeing pictures on television of the devastation caused by the tsunami prompted Warne to make a determined effort to come all the way to Sri Lanka, despite a heavy domestic schedule, to get an eye-witness view of the tragedy. What he saw was often beyond belief. He said it touched his heart to see so many children who had lost their parents, but who were still able to throw a smile at him.
Just as Murali has been heckled in Australia, Warne has also received boos whenever he came on to bowl in Sri Lanka. Relationships between the two countries soured after Murali was called for throwing on the tour of Australia ten years ago. The love-hate relationship between the two nations was at its worst during the tour and Ranatunga, the captain, took the brunt of that criticism.
It was the first time that Sri Lanka had experienced the other side of the Aussies - how hard they played the game, and to what extent they would go, even to the point of intimidation on the field, to win a match. The treatment the Sri Lankans were subjected to in Australia saw boys become men overnight. Determined to get back at the Aussies, Sri Lanka gathered all their resources and emerged as a unit to defeat Australia and win the World Cup at Lahore in 1996.
That was a tale in itself. To beat a well-oiled Australian side, you had to find a chink in their armour. Ranatunga was advised by an Indian journalist to put the Australians down mentally. When Ranatunga asked how best he could do that, he was told that he should target Australia's three best players, and run them down.
So, at a press conference prior to the final, Ranatunga did just that, targeting Warne and the Waugh twins. When his comments appeared in large print in newspapers all over India and Pakistan the next day, Ranatunga said: "It was the first time I've known the Australians to panic." The rest is history.
The three days that Warne spent in Sri Lanka not only restored his personal image, but made him a champion amongst the Sri Lankan people. He will be seen and treated in a different light in the future. Murali also received a warm welcome from Australian spectators when he played for the World XI in the charity match at Melbourne recently. It took a tragedy of huge proportions to change people's attitudes.
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