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Mad Max makes magic

Sambit Bal
Aravinda de Silva's masterclass in batting stunned India in the 1996 semi-final, before an Eden Gardens meltdown

While it remains a bit of myth that Sri Lanka were propelled by the explosive starts provided by Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana in the 1996 World Cup - Kaluwitharana aggregated 73 runs at 12.16, passing 20 only twice - the pair did launch a spectacular assault on India in the league match in Delhi. Chasing 272, they blasted 53 in five overs to set up a six-wicket win.

Against this backdrop, India and Sri Lanka squared up for the semi-final at Eden Gardens. Mohammad Azharuddin's decision to bowl was clearly influenced by the ease of the Delhi chase.

The match couldn't have begun more dramatically. Both India's tormentors were gone in the first four balls, playing mirror-image shots - slashes to third man off Javagal Srinath. But what happened in the next one hour was magical.

Aravinda de Silva batted as if he was in a trance, untouched by the gravity of his team's situation, immune to the roars of a 100,000-strong partisan crowd, and undaunted by the occasion.

His fifty came off 32 balls and contained 11 fours. Yet there was no trace of violence in it. Not for a moment did it feel manic. Instead, he played the purest of cricket strokes, hitting cleanly and crisply between cover and extra cover with such precision that fielders were rendered redundant. It inspired Christopher Martin-Jenkins to invoke Neville Cardus, who once wrote of Reggie Spooner: "He uses the bat as a lady might use her fan."

Such was de Silva's command over proceedings that Sri Lanka galloped along at nearly seven an over, though Asanka Gurusinha scored only a run in 16 balls.

De Silva hit three more sublime fours after reaching 50, and was gone on the stroke of the 15th over, inside-edging Anil Kumble onto his stumps as casually as he had caressed all his fours. It left Sri Lanka at 85 for 4, but India had been stunned and Roshan Mahanama, Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne batted sensibly to take Sri Lanka to 251, a total that would prove beyond India on a fast-deteriorating pitch.

The match ended in shame and tears for India, when passionate Calcutta fans found the Indian collapse - seven wickets for 22 runs to reduce them to 120 for 8 - too hard to bear, and expressed themselves by throwing water bottles, and any other objects they could grab, on to the field, while also setting fire to the seating. Clive Lloyd, the match referee, summoned the players in and later awarded the match to Sri Lanka.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal