The 1996 Cricket World Cup - A Tournament Marked by Controversies

In 1996, Sri Lanka became the first host country to win the ODI World Cup. They overcame civil war-led unrest to emerge victorious. Here’s a recap of how the tournament panned out.

Umaima Saeed
Umaima Saeed

Last Updated: 2023-11-01

Dillip Mohanty

The 1996 Cricket World Cup, also known as the Wills World Cup 1996, marked the sixth edition of the Cricket World Cup organized by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Pakistan and India co-hosted the event for the second time, with Sri Lanka hosting matches for the first time. This tournament included 12 teams and a total of 37 matches.
India was the host for 17 matches played at 17 different venues, while Pakistan hosted 16 matches at six different venues. Sri Lanka, the third host nation, held four matches at three different venues.

Sri Lanka won their first-ever title after defeating Australia by seven wickets in the final, which took place on March 17, 1996, at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium. 

1996 Cricket World Cup - Road to the Final

 The 12 participating teams were Sri Lanka, Australia, the West Indies, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, England, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and the Netherlands.

The UAE, Kenya and the Netherlands made their World Cup debuts in the 1996 World Cup. The Netherlands lost all of their five matches, while Kenya surprised everyone with a win over the West Indies. The UAE also won one match.

Sri Lanka had a dominant group stage, winning all five of their matches. The eight teams that made it to the knockouts - which comprised four quarter-finals, two semi-finals and the final - were England, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Sri Lanka defeated India in the first semi-final, while Australia defeated the West Indies in the second semi-final. 

Sri Lanka’s Unbeaten Run

1996 World Cup

Date Venue Opponent ResultMargin
17 FebColomboAustraliaWonWalkover
21 FebColomboZimbabweWon6 wickets
25 FebColomboWest IndiesWonWalkover
2 MarchDelhiIndiaWon6 wickets
6 MarchKandyKenyaWon144 runs
9 MarchFaisalabadEnglandWon5 wickets 
13 MarchKolkataIndiaWonBy default 
17 MarchLahoreAustraliaWon7 wickets
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"Nobody expected us to win a World Cup but fortunately I had 13 committed cricketers who were more keen on doing justice for their country than themselves”

Arjuna Ranatunga on Sri Lanka's victory

Sri Lanka vs Australia - The Final

In the final at the Gaddafi Stadium, Arjuna Ranatunga-led Sri Lanka won the toss and decided to field first. Mark Taylor (74), Ricky Ponting (45), and Michael Bevan (36*) guided Australia to 241 for 7 in 50 overs. The 74 by Taylor, at the time, was the highest score by an Australian captain in a World Cup match.

The best bowler for Sri Lanka was Aravinda de Silva, who picked up three wickets. De Silva also went on to become their best batsman in the final, with an unbeaten 107 that helped Sri Lanka chase down the target in 46.2 overs. This was only the third-ever century in a World Cup final. The fact that it came against a quality Australian bowling lineup made it even more special. Asanka Gurusinha (65) and Ranatunga (47*) also played match-winning knocks.

 Sri Lanka became the first host country to win a World Cup. What made this victory even more remarkable were the circumstances under which it was achieved. Leading up to this win, Sri Lanka had only managed to secure four victories in the previous five World Cups. However, winning a World Cup during a time when the small island nation was grappling with a protracted civil war was even more remarkable. This victory provided a moment of unity and joy for a nation enduring a challenging period of conflict and uncertainty.

“It was one of the best things that happened to me in my entire life," Ranatunga said at the World Cup win’s 25th anniversary, according to the Hindu.

"Nobody expected us to win a World Cup but fortunately I had 13 committed cricketers who were more keen on doing justice for their country than themselves,” he added. 
"Although we are a tiny country, we have proved to be worldbeaters," President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had said in her congratulatory message to the team. 

1996 World Cup – The Controversies

On 31 January 1996, three weeks before the World Cup, a terrorist bombing attack on Colombo's Central Bank headquarters left over 90 people dead and 1400 injured. It marked one of the deadliest incidents in a civil war that took place in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009. 
This led to Australia and the West Indies deciding to withdraw from their scheduled World Cup matches in the city.  However, the other countries extended their support to Sri Lanka and agreed to send teams to Colombo.

"We were so disappointed that teams were pulling out because this was a huge moment for Sri Lanka to be hosting World Cup matches for the first time. But India and Pakistan came to show that it was safe - and Zimbabwe and Kenya followed suit," Roshan Mahanama, who was a part of Sri Lanka's World Cup winning squad, was quoted as saying by the Hindu.
Sri Lanka benefited from the withdrawal of Australia and West Indies to play in the island country, as the ICC chose to declare them the winners of both matches.

Eden Garden Stadium in Kolkata, India Crowd Trouble in 1996 World Cup.jpeg

Another major controversy that emerged from the 1996 World Cup was the intense crowd reaction at Eden Gardens in Kolkata during the India vs. Sri Lanka semi-final match. In response to India's poor performance, furious fans from among a crowd of over a lakh, resorted to extreme actions, setting the stands ablaze and hurling bottles onto the field. The situation escalated to the point where the seats were set on fire, forcing match referee Clive Lloyd to halt the game before eventually awarding it to Sri Lanka. 

In Pakistan, meanwhile, there were disturbing incidents of unrest after the team’s loss to India in the quarter-final. Stone-throwing mobs surrounded the houses of some players. In a particularly distressing incident, the father of Wasim Akram was kidnapped, allegedly by gamblers who had placed bets on Pakistan's victory. 

India's Campaign

India won five out of their seven matches in the 1996 World Cup. Led by Mohammad Azharuddin, they reached the semi-final, in which they were defeated by Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens.

Sri Lanka, having batted first, had a shaky start, losing two early wickets. However, Aravinda de Silva and Roshan Mahanama played crucial roles in steadying the ship by scoring half-centuries each.

Following Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal for 65 runs in India's pursuit of 252, the Indian batsmen found it challenging to cope with the deteriorating pitch. As wickets continued to tumble, the crowd's frustration, as discussed above, boiled over.

After India had been reduced to 120 for 8, match referee Clive Lloyd decided to award the game to Sri Lanka.

Earlier, India defeated arch-rivals Pakistan in the quarter-final in Bengaluru. Navjot Singh Sidhu scored 93 to guide India to a total of 287 for 8, which they successfully defended as Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble picked up three wickets each. 

Top Performers at the 1996 World Cup

Sanath Jayasuriya, who scored 221 runs at 36.83 while also picking seven wickets, was the Player of the Tournament for his all-round performance.

The top run-scorer was Sachin Tendulkar (523 runs) while the top wicket-taker was Anil Kumble (15 wickets).

The highest team total of 398 for 5 was posted by Sri Lanka against Kenya in Kandy. The highest individual score was Gary Kirsten's unbeaten 188 against the UAE in Rawalpindi. 

Umaima Saeed
Umaima SaeedSports Writer

Umaima Saeed is a professional sports writer whose articles have been featured in several leading websites. She writes long-form content on sports, particularly cricket. She has a penchant for telling human-interest stories. Umaima has contributed articles on cricket to more than a dozen publications, both in print and online.