This time in Alternative Universe, the series in which our writers let their imagination change the game: our masochistic Sri Lanka correspondent wonders what would have happened if Arjuna Ranatunga's men hadn't won the World Cup 24 years ago
Sri Lanka pulled off maybe the greatest underdog triumph in the history of cricket when they won the 1996 World Cup with a mostly semi-professional team, backed by a board with less than US$5000 in its coffers at the time. But before they got to the final, they had to play India in a packed Eden Gardens, with 100,000 baying India fans in the stands - an experience that many of the Sri Lanka players describe as one of the most daunting and surreal of their lives.
Chasing 252, it seemed like India were heading for a major defeat at 120 for 8, before the Kolkata crowd began to throw projectiles on the field and the match had to be forfeited. But it could have gone a completely different way. India's collapse was aided hugely by a crumbling pitch - something neither team saw coming. Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga has repeatedly said he would have batted second had he won the toss, owing to his team's preference for chasing. He also admits that batting second on that pitch was virtually impossible. Which means that had the coin fallen against Mohammad Azharuddin, it have would been India who progressed to that final in Lahore.
What happened next
India could have won a World Cup final in Pakistan, for a start, earning them the kinds of epic bragging rights that the Pakistan team may never have recovered from. Also, even if India didn't win, given Australia were their opponents in the final, it would mean that teams that we now call the Big Three would have won every World Cup for the last 24 years. Disgusting.
There are tactical things. Would Virender Sehwag have thrilled a generation at the top of the order had Sanath Jayasuriya's rampages in the first 15 overs not brought his country a World Cup? Would Adam Gilchrist's or Chris Gayle's, or even Tamim Iqbal's careers have played out the same way? Would ODI strategy, which became intensely focused on opening batsmen in the wake of '96, have evolved in a completely different direction?
This was a bunch of bankers, salespeople and insurance guys who lifted the biggest trophy in their sport when they had no earthly right to. Without fantastical stories like this, cricket would be all systems, processes and resources, wholly without the joyful jewels of narratives that sometimes burst forth uncontrollably to upset the ceaseless march of professionalism. Without stories like this, tactical revolutions would so rarely upend the sport, heroes would come in pre-fabricated shapes and sizes. Fans across the world would be so much poorer too. On top of which, you would probably be a virgin your whole life.
For more such flights of fancy, click here.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf