Arjuna knew ’96 was his World Cup – Sidat

Part 38

by Rex Clementine

(Continued from yesterday)

Having played a key role in the national cricket team in the early days, Sidat Wettimuny was called up for several administrative roles after his retirement. He was the Selector on Tour when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 and four years later, after the team made an embarrassing first round exit, he was appointed as the Chairman of Selectors. Wettimuny also briefly functioned as a Match Referee and his experiences were brought in for the Cricket Interim Committees at various stages.

In today’s ‘Memorable World Cup Moments’ he speaks on his dual functions during the 1996 tournament as Selector on Tour and Manager of the Organising Committee, convincing his brother Sunil Wettimuny, who piloted a charter aircraft to Lahore, that the World Cup winning team needs to get back home on that particular flight rather than the scheduled flight the next day and lots more. Here are the excerpts.

Question: Apart from being the selector on tour during the 1996 World Cup, you were also the PILCOM Manager. What exactly was your role with PILCOM (Pakistan-India-Lanka Committee)?

Wettimuny: PILCOM was the main organising body. There was a PILCOM office that ran the World Cup, so every country had a PILCOM Manager and he had to travel with the team and co-ordinate with the ICC office. I was asked to do that for Sri Lanka and I was very very fortunate to do that. Spending every day with that team was special.

Question: You were the selector on tour as well. Was picking the World Cup squad a tough ask?

Wettimuny: Not really, but what was really difficult was to pick the final eleven. We had a situation where we were wondering whether to play the extra batsman or the bowler at times. That was the kind of issue we had. I remember we debated a lot in Pakistan against England prior to the quarter-final. Ranjan Madugalle, who was a Match Referee, even those days held the role of selector as well and even he joined the meeting and it was quite a long discussion. Finally we opted for a particular combination and it paid off. All in all, I don’t think we had too much of difficulties in selecting. That side was a very mature side and we had some classy players. I feel that that side was more mature than the current squad.

Question: A lot of people say Asanka Gurusinghe is the unsung hero of that World Cup campaign. Apart from the runs, what else were his contributions in 1996?

Wettimuny: Gura was a fabulous fellow. For me, in that side he was the best player off fast bowling. He was the rock in that batting line-up. When it came to facing quick bowling or surviving a spell, Gura was the guy everyone looked up to. Aravinda was flamboyant and sheer artistry, but Gura could weather the storm better than anyone else. If the bowling was doing something, Gura is the man I would have depended on. He did tremendously well. He could bowl a few overs as well and that was an additional advantage. Not only Gura, there were other guys like Hashan (Tilakaratne) and Roshan (Mahanama) in that squad who delivered. See on how many occasions those two guys pulled us out of trouble. They could go and win a match for the team. I don’t see that capability in this side yet. Sanga and Mahela are absolutely special cricketers. Those two are as good as anybody in the world. But we need to find that right mix and right balance. Young Kapugedara and Chamara are worrying. They are tremendous fielders and good team players, but having watched the West Indies tour, I can’t see they are trying anything different.

Question: Talk us through the moments after the team won the World Cup on the 17th of March.

Wettimuny: I tell you that day was an amazing day. You have to thank the Pakistanis. I still remember walking into the hotel after the match. Believe it or not, from the time we got down from the team bus, there were Pakistanis lining up on either sides right from the entrance of the hotel to corridors, lobby and into the lift. They lined up and cheered us through. This is Pakistanis mind you. When we went from ground to the hotel, like you see in a big match, Pakistanis were waving flags as if they had won the World Cup. They were so thrilled for us. That was a very moving sort of thing. They were very very nice to us too. As soon as we went for the game, they asked us what do you want us to do with the wicket. Do we take the grass off or do we keep the grass. You know they treated us so well. It was very special.

Question: What exactly did you do to ensure that the team got home in that charter flight rather than wait for the scheduled flight a day later?

Wettimuny: We were desperate to come back. After winning, we didn’t want to stay there. Everyone was trying to get on that plane. Luckily Sunil (Wettimuny) was there. I remember they had a problem. They said, you guys can go, but we can’t take everybody. We said no way. We are all going even if we had to sit in the cockpit or whatever. Then he asked, what do I do? There are passengers who have paid and booked tickets. I can’t just leave them. We said forget it. You have to tell them that this is the World Cup winning team. You just have to take us. We said we are happy to sit in the cockpit or stand and go like in a bus. Somehow they realised they had to do it and they managed to offload some passengers. We got on and there may have been someone in the cockpit. It was one big party on that flight.

Question: They say you and Duleep Mendis went in search of the pilot in middle of the night?

Wettimuny: Apparently I woke Sunil up. They are supposed to rest before take off and Sunil was asleep in one of the rooms in the hotel. I knew he was the captain of that flight and we barged in and said, ‘hey, you are the captain, you better take us’. He was also obviously keen. We said, you either take all of us or none. They managed to clear so many and the Regional Officer was also helpful. It was a very special tour. I just hope the advantage we had on that tour will be there this time too. When we played India, if it’s not against India, the Indians will support us. India and Pakistan don’t want each other to win, so we are the beneficiaries. The small brother gets all the support. I am hoping that will happen this time too.

Question: Apart from Sri Lanka having an excellent team, there were some smart individuals managing our cricket as well at that time?

Wettimuny: We were very very focused and we had a lot of support. At that time, we had lot of harmony in our cricket. Sadly, we don’t see that anymore. The focus was let’s win the World Cup. From the first game we had momentum. We felt these guys can do something.

Question: Such was the display the Sri Lankans put out in that World Cup, it finished the careers of several leading international cricketers. Manoj Prabhakar of India and Dermot Reeve of England are cases in point.

Wettimuny: I still remember when we beat England in the quarter-final, Demott Reeve walked into our dressing room and shouted, hey chaps, I am putting 1000 Pounds for you guys to win the World Cup. So make sure you win this. This was after Sanath Jayasuriya had massacred the English bowling. He walked in and said you guys are going to win this World Cup. That was the sort of feeling everyone had in us.

Question: At which stage did you believe that the team will win the World Cup?

Wettimuny: Well, I don’t know, but Arjuna also had this funny feeling that it was his World Cup. He was quite cool right throughout. Even before he batted he used to sleep. I used to walk up and down nervous as a wreck and he used to sleep and take it easy. That I believe had a good influence on the rest of them. He comes after fielding, gets a shower and sleeps until he has to change. I guess that put everyone at ease and that side was very special.

(To be continued)

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