I was 19 and spending the summer holidays in Colombo, Sri Lanka where my Father was working.
At that age, you might think that spending five days watching cricket wouldn’t have been high on my agenda, but I’d been offered free tickets for the game courtesy of a director of the sponsors, Keells.
So the opportunity to watch a Test match between one of the top teams, Australia, and the emerging Sri Lankans was not to be missed.
The weather was typical of August in Colombo– hot and dry, and I was rather grateful for the shade of the Keells stand at the Sinhalese Sports Club. A visit twelve months later to see the Indians touring saw me sat out on the grass and burned to a crisp by the close of play (though I suspect the bottle of Southern Comfort helped me through the day).
Both teams had an interesting mixture of veterans and young upstarts. The Sri Lankans were captained by Arjuna Ranatunga, now chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket, and included the likes of Champaka Ramanayake, Aravinda DeSilva, and Asanka Gurusinha. Making his debut was a 23 year-old wicketkeeper named Romesh Kaluwitherana.
There was no Muttiah Muralitharan - he wouldn't make his Test debut until the second match of the series - but it was the forerunner of a side that would gradually come to compete with the best at Test level.
For the Australians, Allan Border led, along with stalwarts Greg Matthews and David Boon and the perpetually unlucky Mike Whitney. It was a tour that saw the last of Tom Moody’s appearances as a Test player, and the emergence of a tyro named Shane Warne prior to his big breakthrough in the Caribbean later that year.
The crowd was humming as Sri Lanka won the toss and put the tourists in. They were all abuzz some few overs later when Ramanayake dismissed Moody in single figures, but then settled in to watch some gritty batting from Mark Taylor and Boon.
Immediately after lunch, things spiced up. Medium pacer Chandika Hathurasingha ripped out the middle order, and along with Ramanayake had the crowd, even in the more genteel surroundings of the sponsors stand, rather animated.
The day ended with a real buzz as the crowd left the ground, pleasantly pleased at having dismissed the Australians for a mediocre score of 256, only Ian Healy’s dogged resistance (an innings of 66 not out that took up almost the entire evening session) slowing the game up.
Day Two saw steady accumulation from the Sri Lankan batsmen. Gurusinha struggled to score at more than two an over, and although Roshan Mahanama and Ranatunga scored more quickly, they had only just overhauled Australia’s total by the close.
The day was enlivened for me by the appearance of my host, and we spent a good part of the afternoon discussing the state of English cricket whilst the Sri Lankans batted, and the prospects for sailing the next weekend!
The third day was brought to life by the debutant Kaluwitherana. Showing a level of maturity that belied his lack of experience, he upped the tempo and had the Sri Lankan crowd, swelled by the successes so far, roaring at his shot-making. You would never have known that when he came to the crease he was facing a hat-trick ball from Matthews
His 132 not out was scored at almost a run a ball, and he hit 26 boundaries to pretty much every part of the ground.
Although he eventually became prominent as a pinch hitter in the One-day side as part of the successful 1996 World Cup winning side, this was Kalu’s finest hour. He eventually appeared in 49 tests over the subsequent 12 years, but never topped his debut innings, only picking up 2 more centuries in his 78 innings.
This innings allowed Ranatunga to declare with a lead of nearly 300 before the end of Day Three, and set Sri Lanka up for what appeared too be their coming out party with a win over the might of the Australians.
The fourth day was an exercise in retaliation by the Australian batsmen.
Having seen Kalu’s onslaught, there were no fears of the pitch second time around and they scored 360 runs on the day. Six men scored 40 or more, and although it was their men getting thrashed around the ground, the crowd reacted positively and had wickets to cheer throughout the day as well. Don Anurasiri picked up four wickets, mostly through attrition.
The Australians scored quickly enough to declare on the fifth morning, setting the hosts 181 to win in 58 overs.
The big Sunday afternoon crowd expected to see a successful run chase, and for most of the day it looked as though they would get their wish. Mahanama and Hathurasingha batted sensibly, but at a pace that would take them to their target, and at 127 for 2, it looked a formality. Some of the crowd started to leave and attention fell away from the cricket.
But DeSilva’s dismissal, playing something of a mis-timed hook to be caught at mid-on by a running Border, sparked a rush of wickets.
Matthews somehow beguiled Marvan Atapattu, Kaluwitherana and Ramanayake into giving away their wickets, before a slender, bleach-blonde leg-spinner came on and picked up the last three wickets to give the Australians the victory by 16 runs and with almost six overs spare.
It was a remarkable collapse.
I’d expected to see the emerging Sri Lankan team stroll to victory, but as so often, the Aussies played party-pooper.
Warne’s game was unremarkable – he took no wickets in the first innings and felt the brunt of Kalu’s onslaught, and only bowled five overs in the second, but picked up three wickets.
I’m reliably informed that he picked up almost as many girls at the ANZAC dinner at the Colombo Hilton!
No, for this neutral, the highlights were in Kaluwitherana’s batting, in Greg Matthews’ perseverance (he picked up the Man-of-the-Match award for 7 wickets and a half-century in the second innings), and in the Australian attitude on the final day.
Even facing defeat, Border looked in control, and was clever with his field placings. He spelled his main bowlers with stints from Moody and Mark Waugh, and never gave up.
It was the first Test I’d attended all five days of, and I enjoyed the atmosphere immensely.
The Sri Lankans were welcoming and friendly, and many of them were prepared to chat about both the cricket and the city.
It was very much a memorable experience.