March 19, 2014

Lahore, five years on

The loss of international cricket in Pakistan since the terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus has been cruel on the country's fans and the rest of the cricket world

The clamorous intensity of Karachi or Lahore is in stark contrast with the Pakistan team's current home, the UAE © Getty Images

March 3, 2009. Lahore. The third day of the second Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The match is not remembered for the cricket. I imagine most people would have to refer to the records, as did I, to find out that Thilan Samaraweera scored a remarkable second double-century in successive Tests, or that Umar Gul toiled for a day and a half to earn a six-wicket haul. As the Sri Lankan team made its way to the Gaddafi Stadium, 12 gunmen launched a lethal attack on the Sri Lanka team bus. Six policemen and two bystanders were killed, as was the driver of the minivan carrying the match officials. Seven members of the Sri Lankan team, the assistant coach, and the reserve umpire were injured. It was the worst attack on an international sports team since the Munich Olympics in 1972.

The tour took place against a background of uncertainty. Sri Lanka had replaced India, who had pulled out after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Much has been written about the inadequate security for the travelling team and officials. Following safety concerns, the Pakistani government had guaranteed "presidential-style security" for the tour, which patently failed to materialise. Astonishingly, the attackers simply sauntered off into the Lahore traffic. None were injured or apprehended at the scene. The lack of security was all the more puzzling, given an internal police report a month earlier had warned an attack against the Sri Lanka team was planned.

The worst affected by the tragedy, of course, are the men who died and their families. It seems incomprehensible that such appalling loss could be associated with something as benign as a cricket match. Of the cricketers affected, Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana suffered the worst injuries. Thankfully, both of them recovered and resumed their international careers, as did Ahsan Raza, the reserve umpire.

In the midst of the tragedy, there was much bravery on display. Mehar Mohammad Khalil, the driver of the Sri Lanka team bus, demonstrated immense courage by staying at the wheel and steering the bus to the safety of the stadium, with the tyres shot out from underneath him. He has been deservedly honoured by Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As always, happenstance played its part. The rocket fired at the team bus skimmed over its roof. The grenade that was rolled under the bus failed to detonate.

Kumar Sangakkara, in his outstanding Spirit of Cricket address, relates how a bullet thudded into the seat at the exact spot where his head had been a second earlier. On such fine margins do the Fates operate.

Sangakkara's address provided a fascinating insight into the team's response. One word above all stands out. Resilience. The team was of a generation that had grown up with the ever-present danger of LTTE terrorism. They were thankful to have survived a direct assault on them, but they knew their countrymen had suffered far worse, and they were unbowed, even joking with each other just hours after the attack. It's hard to imagine more cosseted teams responding with such fortitude.

Five years later, international cricket is yet to return to Pakistan. The nation that has produced some of the most outrageously gifted cricketers we have ever seen is reduced to playing its matches overseas. It's quite possible that no place in the world could recreate the clamorous intensity of Karachi or Lahore, but the relative sterility of the UAE is a cruel contrast.

Sri Lankan officials have made encouraging noises, but, as yet, it is not deemed safe for international tours to resume. Sri Lanka has made a point of supporting cricket in countries threatened by political instability, as evidenced by the recent tour of Bangladesh. It is an acknowledgement that their neighbours supported them during Sri Lanka's own security problems. Citing an LTTE bomb that killed almost a hundred people a month before the 1996 World Cup, Australia and West Indies refused to play their group matches in Colombo. Curiously, the Australians didn't feel the need to scuttle for cover when the London Underground was bombed during the 2005 Ashes tour. In a much-treasured gesture of South Asian solidarity, Mohammad Azharuddin and Wasim Akram brought a combined Indian and Pakistani team to play a friendly match in Colombo before the 1996 World Cup. Arjuna Ranatunga, the Sri Lankan captain, pointedly thanked Wasim and Azhar during his victory speech from that famously over-crowded rostrum in Lahore. It is an ineffable twist of fate that Sri Lanka conquered the Australian team that had refused to play them in the same Gaddafi Stadium that was to be the site of their greatest horror.

Although there are precious few signs that the security situation is improving, let us hope it is not long before Pakistan hosts international cricket again. Pakistan seems to have an endless production line of talent. Their team is flamboyant, maddening, unpredictable, sublime. The cricketing world needs Pakistan, and Pakistan need to play in front of their own people.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

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  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 5:51 GMT

    Loved this, i m in 30's but my eyes got wet when reading it. I want to see Johnson, Styn, Anderson and Malinga bowling , while Kohli, AB Dev, Clarke, Taylor, Cook, Gayle batting in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore , Queeta and Karachi.

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 5:35 GMT

    thanks..greatt write...another sad fact is tthat the pcb was never able to create a domestic circuit which could somewhat compensate for the loss of intl cricket.

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 4:07 GMT

    that's true, but now we are much powerful against militant groups in Pakistan, So ICC have to re-visit report submitted against Tour to Pakistan by Indian Cricket Board, India Always keep threaten by Pakistan, All world knows Indian team is called "lion of home-ground", out side their country, he hardly win match, that's why India won cricket world cup 2011. now we are stabilizing our system against extremism, soon we will get out lost position in cricket, INSHAH AHHAL

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 4:02 GMT

    Ever since that horror day, I have always supported Sri Lanka even if they are playing against Pakistan. It is probably the guilt of what happened to them in our homeland. Everyday i pass from Liberty round about, i felt ashamed.

  • Saood on March 20, 2014, 14:06 GMT

    Thank you Janaka I hope that safety and the joy of international fixtures returns to Pakistan as well.

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2014, 13:46 GMT

    Hats Off to Mr. Janaka! An article which seems to come as if from a Pakistani Writer's pen! What more can I say, you have mirrored our feelings of Solitude in cricket! And just a note of dissent to @chenguramana, were the Sri Lankan people responsible for the LTTE uprising? And it would be noteworthy that Pakistan extended every possible cooperation and resources to quell the rebellion. But this place is about our beloved sport, not politics! All Pakistani's have only respect for SL team and people for their support during those days, which is not that forthcoming now and I don't blame them. I am sure that if any country's team is brave and willing enough to be the first to break the mould, PK government would take every measure to ensure the safety! But it seems that we as a nation will have to wait for a considerable amount of time for that. And that is unbearably sad!

  • Android on March 20, 2014, 13:10 GMT

    very well written article. .....awesome stuff criinfo......

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2014, 10:52 GMT

    The Article is very well written and portrays the real picture that has happened or happening with Pakistan Cricket ever since

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2014, 8:28 GMT

    Thanks Writer for being a part of Pakistani people's voice. We love cricket we love all fantastic player all over the world and want to see Dhoni, Warner, Johnson, Miclum, Hashim Amla, Gyle, ABD, Kohli, and our team player not only front of TV but front of ours eyes. It's not far away we'll see intl team again in Pakistan.. Insha ALLAH

  • Neo on March 20, 2014, 6:59 GMT

    Imran Khan had quoted before this incident that terrorist groups would never target cricketers as they stand to lose public sympathy, an assurance trashed by the terrorists on the fateful day. 5 years on and maybe many more years to go before some international team can even be hesitantly convinced to tour Pakistan on the words or assurances of politicians.

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