How Israel almost stopped Sri Lanka from winning the 1996 World Cup

Looking back at 1979, and how it changed everything for Sri Lanka

Am just reading Nicholas Brookes’ book on the history of Sri Lanka.

And I have just seen something I had forgotten. Sri Lanka almost didn't make it to the 1979 World Cup, the tournament that changed everything for them.

To get into the 1979 World Cup, the non-Test teams had to play the ICC Trophy. Each group had five teams, with only one going through to the next round - one as a lucky loser. And then a semi-final played to get you a place in the ICC Trophy final and the World Cup. It was brutal.

Sri Lanka had played in '75, but Holland and Denmark were upset at that time because they believed they were better. They weren't, as Sri Lanka went on a tour after that tournament to prove they were the next best where they beat East Africa, Holland and Denmark. But the problem was there did need to be a qualification tournament.

So that also meant Sri Lanka had to prove themselves under the pressure of a qualifying tournament. East Africa didn't even make the top four, after being in the ’75 side. (Making '79 the only men's World Cup without an African team. East Africa was there in 1975, and Zimbabwe were there in 83 and 87, and obviously, South Africa, Kenya and Namibia after.)

So that is already one World Cup team not qualifying. So what happened with Sri Lanka?

They beat the USA in the first match, but their game against Wales was washed out. (Yes, Wales played on their own then. Before they became the silent W in ECB). The big challenge was probably the Dutch, but Sri Lanka won that easily. They had two wins and a washout as they approached their last match.

The problem was their final game was against Israel, and their government forbid them from playing that team on political grounds. Israel took the points but were already well out of the running, so it made no difference to them, and they played a club side instead.

For Sri Lanka, this caused two problems, the first being that many wanted the ICC to kick Sri Lanka out. Remember cricket had been largely bilateral at this point.

Look at South Africa. They played three teams before 1970, England, Australia and New Zealand. I wonder what skin colour those teams largely had in common. But while it was probably awkward for some in cricket that South Africa had a racist schedule, there were no forfeits.

The Sri Lankan government was making a big deal out of a match that let's be honest, meant little. It would have had a small crowd in England, and their opponents hadn't won a game yet. But that win meant everything to the Sri Lanka cricket community. And this is very near to a sporting monoculture,  in a new nation, with a proud cricket history, and they lose full points to Israel to  now put their spot in jeopardy.

Thankfully the ICC allowed them to continue.

But there was another problem, they also had the same amount of points as Wales and the USA. But they had the higher run rate, which meant they would go through. But when you look at the table, you see something else fun, USA had a washout as well.

But they also had a win, and that was against Wales. (That's a pretty big victory, considering that Wales had Glamorgan to help with player development.)

The US washout was against the Netherlands, who are a hard team to get a handle on in this tournament. They lost to Wales, but it was on an appalling countback system, way way before the Duckworth Lewis method. They were 59/2 from 30 overs chasing 170 with 30 overs left. So they needed 112 runs from 30 overs with eight wickets in hand, and they lost. Their only win was against Israel, who were very poor.

But if the US had  beaten the Netherlands, it means they would have had more points than Sri Lanka.

Now, would the Sri Lankan government still have made them forfeit their match against Israel, knowing that they would not be in the World Cup, I don't know.

In the end the ICC let them stay, their run rate got them through and in the semi final, they took on the Danes. That probably sounds like an easy game on paper, but in truth, the Denmark side was really good. What has happened to Danish cricket over the years is sad, because they were on that East Africa, Sri Lanka and Holland level for a long time.

Ole Mortensen took 434 wickets for Derby at less than 24. He, and many others, were top-quality players, but sadly that is no longer the case. But remember, it was when Sri Lanka was playing them. Denmark was unbeaten at this point, and their group was tough; they had Bangladesh and Canada. As East Pakistan, Bangladesh had a taste of Test cricket and also a first class setup. Canada would qualify for the World Cup final on the other half of the draw.

Looking at the tournament, I would say Denmark and Sri Lanka were the best two teams. And because of the Israel forfeit, they ended up in the same semi-final. This game was a double elimination, whoever lost was out of this ICC Trophy and out of the World Cup. I'd love to talk it up, but Sri Lanka smashed Denmark and beat Canada in the final. Their batting was different from the other teams, but Canada made 264 against them in the final.

If you don't know the Sri Lankan story, it's the '79 World Cup that changes everything. They beat India there, which is really what led them to become a Test nation.

This is where the butterfly effect takes off in a weird and wild way.

Let's start with Denmark. Because of Sri Lanka's forfeit, they get the tougher run and bottle the semi-final. Had that not happened, their chance to qualify would have been a knockout with Canada. Who they had already beaten. Instead Sri Lanka stuff them.

Denmark never qualifies for a major event, their golden generation dries up, and they are currently ranked 37th on the T20I charts.

Now what about some other teams. Sri Lanka set a new template to get a Test spot and seat at the high table. Before that you had to politic your way into Test status. But when Sri Lanka beat India at a World Cup, it rockets them towards status. Major global tournaments get you more attention than beating a touring MCC or Test team in an unofficial Test.

Following them, we see the same thing for Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Ireland. Would their stories differ if Denmark and Canada qualify for the 79 event and lose all their games?

And as far as Sri Lanka go, if they hadn’t qualified you may wonder how big a deal this would be, as clearly they were good. But remember, we didn't know then. And even if we did know, it would have slowed them down at least.

Let me show you what happens when you never have your big moment. Scotland has produced many cricketers for England. They have a really good club cricket scene, and for long period of their history have been as good - if not better - than Ireland. And yet Ireland jumped the queue on them by having a World Cup moment.

In the 1999 edition, Scotland played Bangladesh. They were the best of the rest in that time. Ireland was nowhere to be seen, Kenya won a World Cup match in 96, but struggled in '99. Afghanistan hadn't yet played an international.

Bangladesh were in front in Scotland's chase, but they couldn't get past Gavin Hamilton. And Scotland still had a chance of winning that match right up until Hamilton's run out at the non-striker's end from the fingertips of the bowler. Bangladesh win that one and the match against Pakistan, boom, they're a Test nation. Gavin Hamilton goes off to play for England, and Scotland slide.

Sri Lanka was stronger than Scotland, and probably find their way in regardless. But had they missed the ’79 World Cup there would have been consequences for them as a team.

And we know that, because in 1968 they missed a tour to England.

It's hard to tell how close Sri Lanka was to Test status earlier because it's mostly rumour and stories. But we know that by ’68 there was some impetus for them to get status. But because they had no funds to tour England, that pushed them so far back into the queue that Holland, Canada, East Africa (if they hadn't split) and Denmark were all believed to be on a similar level.

The problem with a private members system; it's not always what you do, but who you know.

Sri Lanka overcome '68 and survive '79 and you all know what happens next.

However, let's say they didn't make the ’79 World Cup and that delays their Test status.

The later they get into mainstream cricket, the less likely it would have been that they end up as 1996 World Cup champions. They needed all that cricket in the 80s to build their culture and identity. To get miles under players, to work out what was needed at international level. I don't think they get that without Test status in 1981.

By the 1983  World Cup they only win a single match of their six, but they actually played some great cricket and could have won more. But if that win over New Zealand is their first at World Cup level, and that is what is needed to get Test status, they would have been on a delayed path at the least.

Meaning the chances of them winning the ’96 World Cup - which were already pretty low - almost fade away completely.

Sri Lanka winning a World Cup 15 years after full status is an extraordinary story for our sport, and to think it almost didn't happen because of politics and the UK weather.

Weird to think that the only team that could stop Sri Lanka from winning the 96 World Cup was Israel.