Sri Lanka searches for answers

An investigation in to South Africa's withdrawal from Sri Lanka

Charlie Austin

August 18, 2006

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'There were three waves of security cloaking the team hotel and no way of being caught-up in a car bomb' © AFP
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Driving to work today in Colombo - without, sadly, traffic-free roads, armed commandos and bullet-proof windows - I passed the Nepalese football team en route to practice. Later on, stuck in traffic, I caught a glimpse of a Maldives team bus. South Africa are not the only team in town: during the next few days 2500 athletes and officials from eight nations will be participating in the tenth South Asian Games. None of the teams have left the island because of safety fears, and many in Sri Lanka believe South Africa shouldn't have either.

The cricket correspondent from The Daily News, a government newspaper, was in splendid form on Thursday, irking the South African camp with a headline that clamoured for attention: "South African cricketers chicken out - SHAME!" He went on to argue that South Africa were "making a flimsy excuse because they did not want to be beaten again" and that they should not be preoccupied with the safety of shopping malls when they were here to play cricket.

Some of the media accusations levelled at the departing South Africans may be wide of the mark, but the general sentiment is commonly held. Many feel that South Africa's pull-out was unjustified, a decision not backed up with credible evidence. Certainly Duleep Mendis, the chief executive of Sri Lanka Cricket, was not particularly understanding. "I was amazed at their decision," he told The Island newspaper. "What surprises me is that they were advised by a firm based in Dubai. This firm did not even come to Colombo to assess the situation."

Clearly, Sri Lanka Cricket is not going to accept the withdrawal without a fight for compensation. "What South Africa have done is to set a bad precedent and we want justice," Mendis said. South Africa's claims that their relationship remained rosy with Sri Lanka Cricket are nonsense. Sri Lankan cricket officials are fuming at the decision, and the process in which it was made. It didn't help that they appeared to have been the last ones to have been told, learning of the decision from the media.

The Tamil Tigers have never targeted tourists, let alone international sporting teams. Back in 1996 they publicly stated that they would not target visiting cricket teams and there is no evidence to suggest this stance has changed

The credibility of the evidence that South Africa's decision was based upon was not helped by the announcement in Johannesburg by Gerald Majola, Cricket South Africa's chief executive, that the "clinching factor" was a threatening email from a group called the Tamil Tiger Youth League. To those in Sri Lanka, or those who know about Sri Lankan politics, this can be translated as: "The clinching factor was a threat from an organisation that no-one has ever heard of before." It could have been sent from a Hotmail account.

South Africa's own security experts and the ICC-commissioned security experts apparently concurred that "the players' safety could not be guaranteed". But what were the real risks? The Tamil Tigers have never targeted tourists, let alone international sporting teams. Back in 1996 they publicly stated that they would not target visiting cricket teams and there is no evidence to suggest this stance has changed. The two car bombs in Colombo during the past month have been tit-for-tat attempted political assassinations, not a terror campaign targeting civilians.

South Africa made the valid point that there was a small theoretical chance the team could be caught in a crossfire, but Sri Lanka went to the extent of agreeing that main roads in Colombo would be shut down and traffic-free. There were three waves of security cloaking the team hotel and no way of being caught-up in a car bomb. What was the security firm worried about? People, understandably, want to know.

Clearly, whatever was in the report was not communicated to all of South Africa's media because some seemed to be perfectly relaxed at Rhythm & Blues, a fun waterhole a short drive from the location of Monday's bomb. Like most people in Colombo, they realise that despite the recent increased tensions in the island, the city, reputed for its low violent crime rate, is far safer than many in the world at the current time, including a few South African cities.



Duleep Mendis: 'What South Africa have done is to set a bad precedent and we want justice' © AFP
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The decision to pull-out has prompted many hypothetical questions. Would South Africa have withdrawn from an England tour in the aftermath of similar terror scares to those witnessed before the fourth Test against Pakistan? Will South Africa refuse to travel to Mumbai for the Champions Trophy after the dreadful bombings earlier this year? Will South Africa pull-out of a Pakistan tour if a group calling themselves the Al Qaeda Children's Group sent them a threatening email?

Of course, if South Africa's cricketers felt threatened - all the indications are that they were genuinely rattled by Monday's car bomb - then one can understand them wanting to go home. But the suspicion lingers that they were misinformed about the risks posed to them, which were exaggerated by security experts lacking a deep understanding of the conflict between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers. The hastiness of the second, independent review adds to the suspicion.

The end result is that Sri Lanka Cricket, a cricket board that only 18 months ago was faced with a serious financial crisis, now expects huge financial losses from lost broadcasting and sponsorship revenues. This triangular series was one of the most profitable in their current broadcasting contract with Ten Sports and a bilateral series with India still leaves them with a huge hole in their accounts. In addition, the damage caused to the country's tourist industry will be significant. In such circumstances, it is understandable that Sri Lanka Cricket will now want some answers as they consider a demand for financial compensation.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent

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Charlie Austin Sri Lanka editor When Charlie Austin left for Sri Lanka after graduating from Sussex University, he was a planning a winter's cricket in the tropics and a six-month stint with an environmental NGO. His mother's worst fears were soon realised when it became clear that he had fallen in love with the island. Six months have now become eight years and Colombo has become his home. He joined Cricinfo in February 2000 and now heads operations in Sri Lanka, responsible for both sales and editorial. He is also the director of a UK-based travel company called Red Dot Tours, and is currently ghosting Muttiah Muralitharan's autobiography.

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