Arjuna Ranatunga and Ross Emerson in argument

Trigger fingers: Ross Emerson and Arjuna Ranatunga make strong points

© Getty Images

20 Greatest ODIs: No 20

The grudge match Sri Lanka won

Years of resentment and antipathy boiled over in a game where ugly scenes were trumped by a sublime Jayawardene hundred and a chase for the ages

Andrew Miller  |  

We're counting down the 20 greatest ODIs of all time in our run-up to the 2023 World Cup, in reverse order

England vs Sri Lanka, Adelaide 1999

Sri Lanka won by 1 wicket

It was quite possibly one of the most foul-tempered cricket matches ever played. It was most definitely one of the greatest chases ever pulled off. And the extent to which the latter fact was informed by the former beef ensures that the events of Adelaide 1999 deserve a special place in sport's hall of infamy.

Like a malevolent artichoke, this was a contest made up of layer upon layer of resentment, prejudice, personal antipathy and historical injustice. And if that doesn't sound like a rip-roaring recipe for edge-of-the-seat entertainment, then chances are you're not much of a sports fan.

The historic element was two-fold. On a national level, Sri Lanka had had enough of being treated as an afterthought by their supercilious English opponents - or, more specifically, their Generalissimo of a leader, Arjuna Ranatunga, had had enough.

And to be frank, Ranatunga had a point. For years, the "rivalry", such as it could be, had consisted of Sri Lanka being invited for one-off Test matches at the fag end of the English summer. However, for this particular Adelaide encounter - and notwithstanding two earlier defeats in the Carlton & United Series, they came armed with two sensational pieces of one-upmanship.

Firstly, Sri Lanka were the reigning World Champions in ODI cricket. And not only that, en route to their historic 1996 triumph, they had unleashed on England a hiding of truly epochal proportions in their quarter-final clash in Faisalabad - a defeat so one-sided that, had the boot been on the other foot, Sri Lanka might well have faced calls to have their Full Member status revoked.

Instead, on their subsequent one-Test stop-over in England in 1998, they confirmed beyond any remaining doubt that they were here to stay. In an extraordinary display at The Oval, Sri Lanka blazed their way to a ten-wicket win despite England posting 445 in their first innings, thanks to Sanath Jayasuriya's double-century and the 16-wicket efforts of a certain Muthiah Muralidaran.

Ah yes… Murali. Here comes the grit in the Adelaide oyster. In Brisbane three years earlier, umpires Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan had no-balled Murali for chucking on five separate occasions, and now by a strange quirk of fate, they were back as the designated on-field umpires. All the ingredients for a rumpus were there. All they needed was a stir.

Argy-barging: Darren Gough and Roshan Mahanama have a bit of a tussle

Argy-barging: Darren Gough and Roshan Mahanama have a bit of a tussle © Getty Images

That moment duly arrived in the 18th over of England's innings. Despite allowing Murali's first over to pass without comment, Emerson at square leg duly thrust out his arm to a loud cry of "no-ball!", and Ranatunga wasted no time in raising the stakes to DEFCON 1. After a jabbed-finger altercation, he marched his team from the field, thus instigating a 12-minute stand-off as phone calls fizzed between senior board officials.

When the contest did resume, the antipathy was unrelenting. After Emerson refused to shift his position to allow Murali to run up between him and the stumps, Ranatunga embarked on a public humiliation, scratching a line on the turf for the umpire to stand behind, and informing him: "You are in charge of umpiring, I am in charge of captaining."

All the while, mild-mannered Graeme Hick just took charge of batting, and at the halfway mark his unbeaten 126 from 118 balls had hoisted England to an imposing 302 for 3. Soon, Sri Lanka were 8 for 2 in reply, seemingly distracted by the mayhem in their midst, and though Jayasuriya's 51 from 36 served notice of the runs still on offer, the situation was asking an awful lot of Sri Lanka's latest batting prodigy, the 21-year-old Mahela Jayawardene.

He answered the call with an outstanding 120 from 111 balls, his first overseas hundred, and an innings as composed as the rest of the contest was fraught. He was helped along the way by an inevitable contribution from Ranatunga himself, whose 41 from 51 came with a lecture from Alec Stewart behind the stumps: "Your behaviour today has been disgraceful for a country captain."

But England's sheer weight of runs looked capable of carrying the day, especially when Jayawardene's epic ended at 269 for 7, with 34 still needed from the remaining 28 balls.

Now things got truly fraught. In an innings that would ultimately contain three run-outs, Darren Gough thought he'd been deprived of a fourth when Roshan Mahanama appeared to barge him off the ball with Upul Chandana struggling to make his ground - Gough feigned a headbutt in the terse exchange of words that followed.

But such an epic bunfight would not be complete without an encore for the inadvertent man of the moment. With five runs required, and eight balls to get them, Mahanama torched his own innings with a non-existent run to midwicket, whereupon Murali and No. 11 Pramodya Wickramasinghe were left to scramble their side over the line.

An exchange of fraught singles, including a leg-side wide and a careless overthrow from a wayward shy, and suddenly it was scores level and Murali back on strike. A swing for the hills and a thick outside edge off Vince Wells, and Sri Lanka had prevailed in a grudge match for the ages.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket