As skipper Arjuna Ranatunga scored the winning boundary around 10.45 pm, the entire nation erupted in celebrations. Thousands of people filled the hitherto empty streets, waving flags and singing the national anthem and lighting tens of thousands of firecrackers. The next morning the Island newspaper summed up national sentiment with its banner headline: "Sri Lankans World Conquerors."
The morning after there was more cause for celebration as the conquering heroes arrived with the World Cup. The 20-mile drive from the airport to the city was packed with people dancing and cheering the team members, who were whisked away to the president's house for lunch.
And if politicians seemed especially keen to capitalise on the win, the reason was obvious: it took a cricketing success to see a divided nation come together even for a few brief hours. "The nicest thing about this victory is that all communities in the country forgot about ethnic divisions and were unit ed in the celebrations," said Rohan Edirisingha, co-director at the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis. Added Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil, on national television: "The victory is a tonic to the whole country which has helped emphasise that the Sri Lankan identity is opposed to ethnic divides. Today, all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnic and other differences, are feeling the same sense of exhilaration, buoyancy and optimism."
Throughout the tournament, Ranatunga was careful not to single out individual players but insisted that every victory was due to team effort. "Our success is that we play as a team and we play for the country," he has been reiterating. And so, while ace off-spinner Muthiah Muralitharan, a Tamil, is a hero among the Sinhalese, Karikalan, LTTE's political chief for Batticaloa district, said: "Ranatunga (a Sinhalese) is my favourite cricketer." He added that LTTE rebels support the Lankans when they play a foreign cricket team.
The effect on national morale is also striking. "There is no doubt that the same qualities of excellence as displayed by our cricketing champions can be displayed in the economic and industrial fields given the right conditions. By winning the world championship, our cricketers have helped restore the image we had lost of being a cheery and pleasant people who are great sports," The Daily News said in its editorial.
Then, of course, the game itself is bound to benefit. "We think it is high time we made our cricketers professional," announced Cricket Board President Ana Punchihewa in Colombo, referring to the fact that Sri Lankan cricketers are mostly part-timers with steady jobs in the private sector.
And even as the victory promises to make the winning 14 instant millionaires, with businessmen and private sector companies announcing huge cash awards, Ranatunga was categorical: "We have not played for the money. In fact, when cash awards were announced in Colombo on the eve of the final, a number of players came to me and said that they had never played for money and were upset that such announcements were being made. It is a great honour to captain such a team." He went on to take a clear dig at the country's populist Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake who attempted to jump on to the gift bandwagon by persuading his businessmen associates to donate large cash awards to those who did well in the final. "We always pooled the money we won and distributed it equally among the players. We will stick to that policy. We do not want anything to spoil the team spirit that we have built," Ranatunga affirmed.
And so the skipper, who is referred to as Ayiya (elder brother) by his teammates, has been giving his countrymen a lesson or two on the meaning of national pride and unity. But as he announced plans to retire, he dismissed widespread speculation that he was interested in politics (his father is a deputy minister). "There is one politician in the family already. That will do," he said. "Cricket has given me a lot. Now I want to give cricket something in return." But there is no doubting that he has given policy-makers something to think about.