9th January 1996. It was the 9th match of the Benson & Hedges World Series in Melbourne between Australia and Sri Lanka. Australia batted first and scored a modest 213 for 5 thanks largely to a century from young Ricky Ponting.
Sri Lanka, who were thrashed by West Indies in their last match, started their chase and when the openers came out there was a surprise for everyone as regular opener Sanath Jayasuriya was partnered by their little, feisty wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Romesh Kaluwitharana, playing his 34th ODI, had the highest score of 31 till then. Interestingly, he opened for Sri Lanka in his first innings in international cricket in his second ODI, but post that he batted mostly in number 6, 7 or 8 and never opened. Never opened till 9th Jan 1996, when the team management took that inspiring decision to promote him to utilize the fielding restriction in place for the first 15 overs. And what a decision it was! Kaluwitharana blasted a 75-ball 77 with 12 boundaries and gave Sri Lanka a great start which finally resulted in a win for them.
Romesh Kaluwitharana scored two more 50’s, one each against West Indies and Australia in next one week and a trend was set; a trend of sending a pinch hitter in the top of the order. Something which Martin Crowe briefly started with Mark Greatbatch during 1992 World cup but did not catch in till then. Kaluwitharana made the pinch-hitting opener fashionable and built a great partnership with Sanath Jayasuriya.
The 1996 Cricket World cup started just a month after the Australia tour was over. The world cup was scheduled in the sub-continent and matches were distributed between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, Australia and West Indies refused to play in Sri Lanka due to the ongoing political unrest and hence forfeited their matches. Kaluwitharana played some quick-fire cameos in the tournament like 16-ball 26 against India and 18-ball 33 against Kenya and provided ample support to Jayasuriya who was in a murderous form.
Although Kaluwitharana did not score many in the knockouts, this strategy of pinch hitter did create confusion among certain teams which finally resulted in Sri Lanka getting the grand prize. They won their first World cup and their coach Dave Whatmore was credited for executing a new strategy perfectly.
Kaluwitharana mostly opened in rest of his careers for Sri Lanka which spanned for 189 matches till 2004. His highest score of unbeaten 102 came against England in 2001. He also had an unbeaten 95 against Australia in 1999.
This strategy of pinch hitter was replicated by all the teams with varying degrees of success. However, by late ’90s lots of other teams started playing with attacking batsmen at top of the order. Players like Adam Gilchrist and Virender Sehwag followed the path shown by Romesh Kaluwitharana and retired as legends.
Hence, it will be safe to say that the events of 9th January 1996 had an everlasting impact on One day cricket and was a key reason for its enhanced popularity from the ’90s till now.