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1992

Safety first?

When a bomb blast outside a team hotel was not enough to cause the cancellation of a tour

Martin Williamson

January 12, 2008

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Ken Rutherford: witnessed officials with sticks picking up 'bits of scalp and innards off fences and pavements' © WCM
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In late 1992 the New Zealand side arrived in Sri Lanka for a short tour, their first since a bomb blast five-and-a-half years earlier had led to the abandonment of a trip under the captaincy of Jeff Crowe.

On that occasion the blast killed over 100 people at the crowded Pettah bus station, which the team had passed at a distance of 150 metres half an hour before. It was to be more than five years before Sri Lanka hosted a major series again.

In November 1992 the New Zealanders had been in Colombo 11 hours after a 40-hour journey from Zimbabwe when, on the eve of their first game, a suicide bomber crashed his motorcycle into a car outside their team hotel containing a Sri Lankan vice admiral, killing the two of them as well as three of the admiral's aides. Many of the New Zealanders were sitting outside on their hotel balconies when the bomb went off while Ken Rutherford, eating inside, recalled the blast knocked his breakfast tray off his bed. Warren Lees, in an adjoining room, had his balcony doors blown open.

"The tourists saw the horrific results at first hand," Wisden reported. "Dismembered bodies were strewn over the blood-stained street; even the balconies and walls of the hotel were stained with human debris. Many of the players went into shock." Martin Crowe, the New Zealand captain, said: "It was what you would imagine you might see in a war." Rutherford ventured downstairs two hours later to witness officials with two-metre long sticks picking "bits of scalp and innards off fences and pavements".

Their knee-jerk response was to get out of Colombo. Mark Greatbatch told New Zealand television that he was all for heading home, and in the immediate aftermath it seemed that was inevitable. But Peter McDermott, the New Zealand board chairman, was not as convinced. "It would be premature to say the tour is off," he said as he rushed to the airport to catch the first flight to Sri Lanka. "We will be looking at whether the tour can be salvaged and I would have thought the intention would be to try to salvage it if possible."

An editorial in The Island asked: "Can any such mentality emerge when we pretend nothing is wrong while the ... cricket matches continue?"

By the time McDermott landed some 36 hours later, nine of the squad, after taking diplomatic advice, had voted to abandon the trip. Some of the old hands, veterans of the 1987 trip, were in no doubt, although the younger players were less certain. McDermott was not to be swayed, Wisden wryly observing: "He was concerned about the cost to his board in tour guarantees and compensation to the Sri Lankan board; the government was concerned about trading relations with Sri Lanka, and particularly about a trade exhibition due to start in Colombo two days later."

He publicly promised no pressure or recriminations. Privately, he was standing for no nonsense and after a three-and-a-half hour meeting he spoke to the doubters individually and explained that the reputation of New Zealand cricket was at stake. He persuaded enough, especially the senior players, to allow the tour to proceed.

Rutherford, one whose mind was changed, said McDermott had been polite, but Lees said that he had been asked to quit as coach immediately if he left. Rutherford later said that Murphy Su'a and Mark Haslam "felt the wrath of McDermott" and both stayed.

Greatbatch, particularly, fumed at attempts to force him to stay, and quit the tour, officially on compassionate grounds; Rod Latham, Dipak Patel, Gavin Larsen, Willie Watson and Lees went with him. Four players, including the former New Zealand captain John Wright, whose career had seemed over, flew out to Sri Lanka as replacements, while Crowe took on coaching duties.

If McDermott thought he had sorted things out without any hitches, he was wrong. Crowe appeared on TV, clearly unhappy with, in effect, having his hand forced to remain. As a full-time employee of NZ Cricket, his choices were probably limited. "The whole thing's been pressurised and I'm feeling it as much as anyone," he said. "I'm not happy about it because it is not our best side ... no disrespect to the guys coming over, but they weren't picked in the first place."

 
 
The spirit of the side had been broken and irreparable damage inflicted
 
Ken Rutherford was another who remained, but he caused controversy when he warned other countries against visiting Sri Lanka. Under pressure from his own board and the ICC, he retracted his remarks.

When the reinforcements arrived, the tour finally got underway and, unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka won both Test and ODI series 2-0. The mood in the camp was strained, Crowe gradually became isolated, and it was with relief that the New Zealanders flew home on December 14.

"McDermott had got his way but what a heavy price the game in New Zealand paid," Rutherford wrote in his autobiography. "The spirit of the side had been broken and irreparable damage inflicted."

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo

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