The afternoon is really bad for Sri Lanka, but after 8.18 pm things will improve," my friend who dabbles in astrology predicted before Sri Lanka's semi-final fixture against India in Calcutta on March 13. As the match started, the roads emptied, office workers forgot work and the whole nation was glued to TV sets or radios as even non-cricket lovers crossed their fingers that nothing would stop the Lankans from entering the finals.
Hope and expectation turned to nervousness as the Lankans—who are better at chasing than setting a total—lost the toss and were put in to bat. "It looked like we lost half the match when we lost the toss and were put into bat," says Baudula Warnapura, Sri Lanka's first Test captain. Then ervousness turned to sheer horror when the two free-scoring openers were out in the first four balls. And the island practically held its breath as the batting line-up sank to 35 for 3. "I almost died," recalls Shirasthi Abeysekara, a law student at Colombo University. Adds Dion Schoor man, Colombo manager for Reuters News Agency and an avid cricket fan: "The only consolation was that the openers were to be followed by five of the most experienced one-day batsmen in the world. So we still had a chance to put on a good total."
They started breathing more easily as Aravinda de Silva timed the ball sweetly. "Aravinda carried the side with a very mature innings," says Warnapura. Still, 251 did not seem a defendable total and Lankan fans reckoned that the team needed at least 20 runs more, given Sachin Tendulkar's ability to destroy any rivals'hopes. And as Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar looked to be taking India to victory, some nervous fans switched off their TV sets.
Perhaps the whole country cheered when Tendulkar was stumped and for those like me who don't believe in astrology, the time was 8.19 pm. My friend, the astrologer, was on the cellular phone again with another prediction: "Sri Lanka has to finish the match before 10.21 pm. After that things get difficult." As Indian batsmen came and went, the Lankans knew that they had wrapped up the game and were in the World Cup final for the first time. But the glory was snatched away from Lanka as Indian fans at the grounds started expressing their dissatisfaction with the proceedings. "That was disgraceful. We could have got them all out for less than 150 runs and that would have been a great victory," sighs Fiona Candappa, a schoolteacher.
The eveninger, Observer , was more understanding, calling for World Cup matches to be played on neutral grounds. "There is the Neanderthal man in all of us, however much we might cloak him in the raiment of respectability. This is the beast in us who wants to see the enemy punished, the heretic burnt at the stake. When a large number of these beasts gather in a herd, then it is the law of the jungle that prevails," it said in an editorial.
But the premature end of the match did not stop Lankans from celebrating. Crackers were lit, people poured into the streets and others ordered more drinks as celebrations carried on late into the night. The morning papers splashed the news on the front page in the unlikely event that there was a single Sri Lankan who had not heard the news. For a nation traumatised by a 12-year-old bloody separatist war which has killed almost 50,000 people, the emergence of its team as one of the top cricketing sides has been the only good news for a long time and politicians have been quick to hop on to the bandwagon.
"Though regrettable circumstances beyond your control caused the match to be stopped prematurely, you had by then so conclusively established your dominance that none could possibly doubt that final outcome," President Chandrika Kumaratunga said in a message to the team. However, it took a politician to spoil Sri Lanka's ecstasy. While before the tournament most of the other teams had been promised large cash rewards for winning the trophy, the Sri Lankans were not. "We are not playing for the money. It's for the country," commented Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga. But after the victory over India, Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake announced huge cash rewards to the captain and the man of the match if Sri Lanka won the finals. "No one will grudge the cricketers the money. But the timing of the announcement makes it disgusting political opportunism. It will only take away some of the glory from our boys," an avid cricket fan said. Now, given the way they've played, that's a hysterical exaggeration.