I think my friend was a bit taken aback really, when she asked me what I did to just to zone out and relax. I thought for a second, then remembered my guilty pleasure: “I watch old sports videos on youtube.”
It is a bit odd, I know. And maybe even more unusual because I only vaguely follow the contemporary sports world, yet some nights I can for several hours watch videos of games, many of which I watched the first time around back in the 90’s. But thinking about it more, I realised there are ways my worldview was affected by my boyhood love of (some would say obsession with) sports. With that in mind, I thought I would share a few of my favourite sporting memories, united by the fact they were from world cups in the late 90’s (my peak sports-loving period).
The first goes back to when I was very young. I was nine years old when Sri Lanka came to Australia in 1995/96 for their first full tour of the country. Sri Lanka was young too – as a nation it had been independent from its British colonial masters for less than half a century (it had been known as Sri Lanka for half that time again) but was still trying to work out its national identity and was in the middle of a bitter civil war. As a cricketing country it had played its first test in 1982 and in the time since then had won only a handful of games. Apparently the team were so poorly paid several of them couldn’t afford rent in Colombo and lived at the family home of captain Arjuna Ranatunga.
They weren’t expected to beat the cricketing superstars of Australia and to be honest in the test series they didn’t – losing all three games resoundingly. The series really heated up though when the Sri Lankans were accused of ball-tampering; and when a couple of Australian umpires no-balled Sri Lanka’s promising young off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing. Murali’s controversial action had been cleared by world cricket’s governing body, and the Sri Lankans saw this as an act of Australian arrogance to overrule it.
They seemed to take this as a rallying point when it came to the triangular one-day series with Australia and fellow cricketing giants (albeit in decline) West Indies. There the Sri Lankans played cricket with a new self-belief; but also a startling tactical innovation that surprised their opponents.
Opening batsmen in cricket were traditionally of a slow and steady inclination, making sure to wear the shine off the new ball before starting any attack. Sri Lanka though saw an opportunity through rules that restricted fielding positions in the opening overs. They replaced their normal opening batsmen with middle-order batsman Sanath Jayasuriya and wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Kaluwitharana was improbably tiny – when he hunched over for his batting stance you could almost see the top of the wickets behind him. His bat seemed to be as heavy as he was, but he would use it to club the ball around the field with a joyful disrespect to the opening bowlers. Jayasuriya would slash at the ball in an unorthodox way, hitting sixes over the off-side in a way you never saw anyone else do at the time. They would take teams by surprise, and the rest of the team could chip in enough to get them through. Murali would go on to be cricket’s leading wicket-taker of all time, and stylish batsman Aravinda De Silva was at the time regarded as the country’s best ever player, but in reality they were a team of few stars where everybody contributed bit-parts.
Sri Lanka beat the West Indies into the finals series, where they gave Australia a decent fight in a hot-tempered couple of games. The arrogance of the Australian team and media against this very likeable team of new upstarts was pretty uncomfortable to watch, even for a kid who got his cricket commentary from Channel 9 and the Murdoch press. The Australian players especially targeted portly captain Arjuna Ranatunga; though as it turned out Ranatunga was a man of exceptional levels of self-confidence – named after the mythical Hindu warrior and later to become a politician, his pride could seemingly drag the rest of his team with him along for the ride.
Several months later was the cricket world cup. There the style the team had pioneered in Australia was unveiled for the rest of the world. Sri Lanka broke the world record for highest team score in one match and crashed their way through the tournament winning every game. There was a bit of heat too, and not just because the games were played in a South Asian summer. Australia and the West Indies refused to play in Sri LAnka due to terrorist concerns from the civil war and thus forfeited their games. When Sri Lanka shocked India with a big win in the semi-final at Kolkata; supporters literally rioted, forcing the game to be called off early as smoke rose from the grandstands.
So Sri Lanka entered the world cup final, where they once again faced Australia. Except this time they were on the crest of an almighty wave. They got off to a bad start with both bat and ball, but Aravinda De Silva rose to the occasion, taking key wickets with his part-time off spin and scoring a brilliant century to direct the team to victory. This tiny country had become cricket’s most surprising world champions and announced themselves as a force. Not only that, but they had done so with style, creativity, and dignity in the face of hostility.
Two years later, there was a world cup in a different sport. I had never really watched much soccer, but a world cup seemed exciting. So, still in primary school, I would get up at 4:30 each morning to watch the last of the day’s games on SBS then head off to school.
I quickly grew to love soccer. I liked the game, but I also liked the appearance on my TV of teams from continents all around the world, each bringing their own styles. As the cup went on and the teams became less, I picked up as my favourite team the Netherlands. The country’s colonial history had enabled the two central midfielders to be black guys with dreadlocks, which was pretty cool, but most of all I loved the quiet, almost brooding presence of striker Dennis Bergkamp.
Bergkamp never seemed to break into a sprint – he would seemingly glide across the grass. His touch on the ball was so gentle. Which seems like an odd thing to say, but honestly he only ever seemed to caress the ball, and no matter how hard someone kicked it at him, his feet always seemed to absorb the impact. It’s such a cliche for writers with intellectual pretensions to compare sportspeople with ballerinas. Here’s the truth folks – I’ve never watched a ballet in my life. Bergkamp was just an incredibly graceful footballer; a classic number 10 who could create goals where most people could only see lines of defenders.
There was something odd about him too – he didn’t really look like a footballer with his receding hairline and furrowed brow. He had a fear of flying which meant when his club Arsenal played in European competitions they had to go without their star player for the away games when they needed him most; and meant he retired from the national team before the next world cup to save having to somehow get to Japan. All this just added to the mystery of the man. At the 1998 world cup he was at his peak, having just lead Arsenal to their first league title in a decade, and was hoping to do the same for the Dutch.
In the quarter final, Holland met Argentina – the country who had once beaten them in a world cup final. It was a fierce game, but with moments of class. Bergkamp set up Holland’s first goal with a wonderful cushioned header to his forward partner Patrick Kluivert (that was another thing about him – he always set up more goals for others than he scored himself, and he once said he enjoyed setting them up more too), but Argentina equalised. It looked like the game was going to extra time for sure; but in the last minute, seemingly out of desperation, the ball was booted to Bergkamp on the right hand side of the penalty area. He took the ball on the full, then bounced it between the defender’s legs, then shifted his weight and with the outside of his boot curled the ball past the keeper and into the top corner. It was all done with his right foot, yet he sent the defender twisting around like a spinning top. It was, and still is, the most aesthetically beautiful goal I have ever seen. On this youtube clip it’s even better with the sound up; the Dutch commentator, seemingly lost for words with hysterical joy, just shouts Bergkamp’s name over and over again like some ecstatic mantra.
In those late 90’s, South Africa was one of the few cricketing teams who could really give the Australians a frequent challenge. As a team they were hard and competitive, and their games with Australia were often dour arm-wrestles played with gritted teeth (and a fair bit of what Australian captain Steve Waugh famously called “mental disintegration”). Among the South African team though existed the maverick presence of Lance Klusener.
Klusener was a hard-looking man with a red crew-cut, but he bounded in to bowl with the enthusiasm of a kid on red cordial. His nickname was “Zulu” because he grew up in a rural area and could speak Zulu language – something which less than a decade after the end of apartheid was a bit of a rarity.
At the 1999 world cup; Lance Klusener, theoretically in the team as a fast bowler, became South Africa’s star batsman – adding quick runs late on, or more than once rescuing the team from a perilous situation. This was a surprise because the team actually included a number of the world’s leading batsmen. But it was also a surprise because Lance Klusener batted like a man who had never made it past the contents page of a cricketing textbook.
He would hold his bat high, and club the ball with great cross-batted heaves as if he was back on the farm scything grass. But in a tournament where batsman generally struggled, seemingly nobody could get him out or stop him from scoring.
The semi-final against Australia was another low-scoring battle. Australia only scored 213 but seemingly had South Africa on the ropes at 9-198 in the second last over – needing 16 off 8 balls to win with one wicket left. Except guess who was still there. With his trademark style, Klusener bludgeoned a six and a four in the second last over to get them needing 9 off the last six balls. Unbelievably he then smacked two fours off the first two balls to tie the scores with four balls remaining.
Allan Donald, the batsman at the other end, was one of the world’s best bowlers but hopeless with the bat. He nearly got himself out when not even facing the ball. So next ball, Klusener bumped the ball to mid off and charged off for the run that would win the game and put South Africa into the world cup final. He forgot to tell his partner to run though, and Donald stood frozen like a rabbit in headlights. When he finally went to take off he dropped his bat. The ball came back, and Australian bowler Damian Fleming comically rolled the ball down the pitch to run him out. It was a moment of pure farce at the highest level, one that would be replayed again and again on TV screens around the world.
It’s excruciating on this video watching Klusener walk off while Australia celebrates. But his response to team mates was apparently to shrug “We lost the world cup. Nobody died.”