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Shootout in Lahore

'I felt a bullet fizz past my ear'

When you have been through what we have experienced, when you have been targeted by terrorists yourself and been so fortunate to escape, it changes your thinking

Kumar Sangakkara

March 4, 2009

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'Our families will never feel the same about us leaving to play in Pakistan' © AFP
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As I dictate this article we are preparing to fly home. It's been a long day and we can't wait to return home to our families. We were shaken badly, obviously. Pakistan has a reputation for being unstable in the recent past, but we never expected to be caught up in something like this. I am still shocked that a sports team could be targeted in this manner.

We had always felt pretty safe in Pakistan, to be honest. It shows how naïve we were. We realise now that sports people and cricketers are not above being attacked. All the talk that "no one would target cricketers" seems so hollow now. Far from being untouchable, we are now prize targets for extremists. That's an uncomfortable reality we have to come to terms with.

Tuesday started as just another day in Lahore: a morning report to the fitness trainer to check our hydration levels, a quick breakfast and cup of coffee and an 8.30am departure to the ground. We were all looking forward to the third day's play and trying to win the series. Our chief concern was how to wheedle out 19 Pakistan wickets on another true batting pitch.

Our team bus left with three to four police cars in a convoy with around 12 policeman and security officers, including motorbike outriders. Along the route road junctions were cleared and side roads closed to ensure we passed through the traffic easily. It was standard security for teams in this region and we had no worries as we travelled to the stadium.

The bus was full of the normal banter. Players traded stories, mostly about Lahore shopping, and cracked jokes. Others chatted about the cricket and the crucial first session. Then, as we approached the large roundabout before the Gaddafi Stadium, we suddenly heard a noise like a firecracker. The bus came to a halt and some of the guys jumped out of their seats to see what was happening. Then came the shout: "They are shooting at us!"

From the front I heard the screams to "get down, get down" and we all hit the deck. Within seconds we are all sprawled along the floor, lying on top of each other and taking shelter below the seats. The gunfire became louder, we heard explosions (which I understand now were hand grenades) and bullets started to flash through the bus.

I was sitting next to Thilan Samaraweera and close to the young Tharanga Paranavitana. For some reason I moved my head to get a better view and a split second later I felt a bullet fizz past my ear into the vacant seat. Fortunately, as a team, we remained quite calm. No one panicked. After what must have been two minutes standing still, we urged the driver to make a run for the stadium just a few hundred metres away: "Go, go, go" we shouted.

The truth is we owe our lives to the courageous Mohammad Khalil, the driver. I will forever be grateful to him. The tyres of the bus had been shot out and he was in grave personal danger, exposed to gunfire at the front of the bus. But he was hell-bent on getting us to safety and, somehow, he got us moving again. Had Khalil not acted with such courage and presence of mind most of us would have been killed.

Standing still next to the roundabout we were sitting ducks for the 12 gunmen. We only found out afterwards that a rocket launcher just missed us as we began moving and turned for the stadium gates, the rocket blowing up an electricity pylon. Khalil saw a hand grenade tossed at us that failed to explode. Someone must have been looking over us because right now it seems a miracle we survived.

As we moved towards the stadium, Tharanga announced he was hit as he sat up holding his chest. He collapsed onto his seat and I feared the worst. Incredibly, the bullet hit his sternum at such an angle that it did not penetrate. He was fine. Shortly afterwards Thilan complained of a numbness in his leg, which we later found out was a bullet wound.

Thilan and Tharanga were the worst hit. Just before reaching safety I felt a dull ache in my shoulder. Shards of metal, shrapnel, were lodged in the muscle. After being quickly evacuated to the dressing room the paramedics attended to those with minor wounds. My cuts were cleaned. Ajantha Mendis had several shards of metal removed from his head and neck after his hair was shaved off. Paul Farbrace, our assistant coach, had a large piece of shrapnel removed from his arm. Mahela [Jayawardene] had a minor cut to his ankle. After a while we started to calm down, and the phones started ringing.

When the tour was first announced while we were playing in Bangladesh, we had discussed security concerns with the Sri Lanka cricket board. Our own board had originally asked for a longer tour, asking for two extra ODIs, but we requested a shortened tour, an independent assessment of the security situation, some security guarantees, and proper insurance covering terrorist attacks.

 
 
Standing still next to the roundabout we were sitting ducks for the 12 gunmen. We only found out afterwards that a rocket launcher just missed us as we began moving and turned for the stadium gates, the rocket blowing up an electricity pylon. Khalil saw a hand grenade tossed at us that failed to explode. Someone must have been looking over us because right now it seems a miracle we survived
 

We were promised "Head of State" security and we were satisfied with this. We also wanted to play cricket in Pakistan. Nevertheless, with hindsight, we probably underestimated the security threat. In future, we need to very seriously consider how best to better tackle the issue of security in a new post-Lahore reality. We need to consider a more centralised and independent system for assessing security and a more open sharing of security information, not just between boards but with FICA and the players.

From a Pakistan perspective, it is tragic this has happened. Pakistan is a great country with a strong cricket tradition and very hospitable people. We like playing cricket here, but the presence of a small minority pursuing their own agendas at any cost will surely prevent tours for the foreseeable future. I sincerely hope that a solution can be found with time but assume Pakistan will first need a neutral venue solution for their home games.

Will I go back? When you have been through what we have experienced, when you have been targeted by terrorists yourself and been so fortunate to escape, it changes your thinking. It is a big question which cannot be answered now. I suspect, too, for us it can only be answered as an individual. Our families will never feel the same about us leaving to play in Pakistan. That is sad - for Pakistan and world cricket.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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