Let us stop ridiculing the man for a moment. Much has been said about his return to the team, rightly so even, but what's done is done so let us move on and appreciate a man who changed not only Sri Lankan cricket, but world cricket as well, a feat that only a handful in the history of the game can claim rights to.
In fact, I'm just going to talk about just one innings which I think is the best of the lot. He has played so many breathtaking knocks it's so hard to pick one as the best, but this in my opinion beats them all. I am not talking about his devastating 189 in Sharjah, nor his fastest 100 versus Pakistan and it's not even his 125 in the Asia Cup Final 2008 which I thought is one of the greatest ODI knocks played in recent times. The best innings by Sanath, for me, is not even a century; it is his breathtaking 79 against India in the 1996 WC preliminary round game.
That was the innings that defined him. That was the innings that made bowlers the world over excrete bricks just at the thought of bowling to him. That was the innings that changed the world cricket for good. For every six they hit, for every match they win the likes of Gilchrist, Sehwag, Gayle, McCullum and Pollard owe it to Sanath for without him neither would they have emerged, and in turn Sanath would not have been who he was if not for that innings. That was the innings that started it all.
Until then, he had some big hitting knocks - even when opening the batting - under his belt. He was known for his big hits, but there he just took it to a new level. Back in the day when there was only 15 overs of powerplay and much better pitches for bowlers, a 250 was a competitive score and 271 - which India made - was pretty much a winning score. Especially considering the fact that India, on paper at least, were much better a team and Sri Lanka were - a lot of youngsters these days don't get this - ranked minnows back then. When we look back we think what an awesome lineup we had, but the truth of the matter was that lineup became awesome because they won the World Cup; before that they were just another minnow, and inconvenience the other teams had to get through to advance.
So when he walked into the middle with Kalu, after Sachin's brilliant 100 albeit two decisions going in favor of him, Sri Lanka were not expected to win. And they certainly weren't expected to be on 42/0 after just 3 overs. It's taken for granted these days, but back then that kind of a score line was unheard of. That instilled so much fear into Azharuddin and his boys' mind it went a long way in us winning the World Cup. That innings alone created so much buzz suddenly Sri Lanka were a team to be feared of and our chasing had achieved some legendary status, almost mythical. So much so that when the two teams met in the semi-final later, Azharuddin decided to bowl first on a pitch that had so much evidence that it would crumble later on; a decision had a lot if not everything to do with that knock of Sanath. The moment Azar decided to play for Sri Lanka's (supposed) weakness than to play for India's strength, they had lost. Aravinda played one of the greatest ODI knocks of all time in that game, yet it was Sanath who had defeated the Indians even before a single ball was bowled. Such was the impact that one innings had on us winning the World Cup.
Thank you Sanath, thank you for all the memories.
Originally published here.