Sri Lanka's triumph in the 1996 World Cup brought back strong memories of the West Indian victories of 1975 and 1979. For one thing, Sri Lanka, co-hosts along with India and Pakistan, did not lose a single game, even if Australia and the West Indies had forfeited their games citing security concerns.
The sixth World Cup returned to the subcontinent, and this time the format was changed as the competition had extended to 12 participating teams. The nine Test-playing nations were joined by three associate members - the United Arab Emirates, Holland and Kenya - and the 12 sides were placed into two groups.
Pool A comprised Australia, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, India, Zimbabwe and Kenya, while Pool B was made up of South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand, England, the UAE and Holland. The top four teams in each group qualified for the knock-out quarter-finals.
With Australia, the West Indies, India and Sri Lanka from Pool A and South Africa, England, New Zealand and Pakistan from Pool B making it to the last eight, it would appear that there were few upsets in the preliminary stage, but in fact, there were some surprising results. Few, for example, would have expected Sri Lanka to top the group, although detractors would argue that they were helped by both Australia and the West Indies refusing to travel to Colombo after a bomb-blast rocked the capital weeks before the start of the tournament. Considering the manner in which Sri Lanka played, however, a victory over both Australia and the West Indies could not be ruled out, and this argument received certification when Sri Lanka defeated Australia by seven wickets in the final at Lahore.
In the three remaining group matches, Sri Lanka defeated Zimbabwe by six wickets, India by the same margin and Kenya by 144 runs. By this time, they had emerged as the team to beat, and there was no stopping them in the knock-out stage either. In the quarter-final they romped to a five-wicket victory over England with 10 overs to spare, and in the semifinal against India at Calcutta, they were well on top when rioters disrupted proceedings by setting the stands afire and throwing objects on the field.
The circumstances were unfortunate, especially for a traditionally cricket-loving city, and match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka after they had led off by scoring 251 for eight in 50 overs and India were tottering at 120 for eight in 34.1 overs. In the final, they capped a memorable tournament by coasting to victory over Australia, making light of what seemed to be a challenging Australian total of 241 for seven by racing to victory with seven wickets and nearly four overs to spare.
The speed at which the Sri Lankans made their runs was quite astonishing. At the end of the tournament, four front-line batsmen had a strike rate of over 100. Kaluwitharana's strike-rate was 140.38 per 100 balls, Jayasuriya's 131.54, Arjuna Ranatunga's 114.76 and Aravinda de Silva's 107.69. De Silva was in splendid form, getting 448 runs with two hundreds and two fifties at an average of 89.60. He emulated Mohinder Amarnath by nabbing the Man of the Match awards in both the semifinals and final.
Jayasuriya scored 221 runs in swashbuckling fashion, demoralising the bowlers totally. He also picked up seven wickets and was adjudged as the Player of the Tournament. Ranatunga (241) and polished left-hander Asanka Gurusinha (307) were the other batsmen who played a notable role in the triumph. Such was the strength of the batting that the services of Hashan Tillekeratne and Roshan Mahanama were hardly required. The bowling mainly revolved round Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, and the two did their job commendably.
In group B, things moved more according to prediction. South Africa won all five matches to finish on top, taking heavy toll of the bowling of the two weak teams, the UAE and Holland, and notching up totals of 300-plus each time. Against the UAE, Gary Kirsten notched up 188 not out, still the highest score in the World Cup. Pakistan, New Zealand and England followed in that order.
The highlight of the quarter-finals was a high-voltage encounter at Bangalore between India and Pakistan. To the jubilation of the home crowd, India won by 39 runs. There was a minor surprise when the West Indies got the better of hotly fancied South Africa, who buckled under pressure to lose by 19 runs at Karachi. In-form Sri Lanka were too strong for England at Faisalabad, while Australia overcame a gallant challenge from New Zealand at Madras.
In the penultimate round, the West Indies, after having things well under control, went down to Australia by five runs at Mohali. In the face of an Australian total of 207 for eight in 50 overs, the West Indies seemed to be cruising home at 165 for two. But the last eight wickets fell in a heap, and the West Indies were all out for 202 in the last over.
In the other semifinal at Calcutta, India too were in a strong position with a score of 98 for one in reply to Sri Lanka's 251 for eight. Thereafter it was a veritable procession of wickets, and Lloyd's decision in awarding the match to Sri Lanka following the resultant disturbances was the right one.
Batsmen generally called the shots on subcontinental wickets, but there were a few bowlers like Roger Harper (12), Damien Fleming (12), Shane Warne (12), Waqar Younis (13) and Anil Kumble (15) who braved adverse conditions and performed commendably. The tournament also marked the end of Javed Miandad's distinguished career, making him the only cricketer to play in all the first six World Cup competitions.