1987 September 12, 2009

Saved by the detour

It was New Zealand's second Test series in Sri Lanka. The first match was dull as ditch water. Then things hotted up

Till recently, teams visiting Sri Lanka often raised the issue of security concerns, some even refusing to tour due to the civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. When the ethnic conflict reached serious proportions in 1983, a year after Sri Lanka gained Test status, players set foot in the country with trepidation. When the New Zealanders landed in Sri Lanka last month, though, the war had finally ended and peace had come to the country for the first time in decades. But the tourists' predecessors had different stories to tell.

New Zealand have had the misfortune of having two of their tours to Sri Lanka jolted by bombings. The horrific Colombo blast during the 1992-93 series threatened to derail the tour completely, before the New Zealand board stepped in and managed to salvage it. Six players and the coach left and replacements were flown in.

On the tour before that one, in 1987, a similar explosion in the same city brought about a complete cancellation of the series within days of the incident. That year was a significant, volatile one in Sri Lanka's history, marked by escalating violence. Months after that particular attack, with scores of refugees pouring into India, Rajiv Gandhi's Indian government sent in a peace-keeping force to disarm the militant groups.

The tour, in April and May of 1987, was hastily organised by the New Zealand board to prepare their players for the World Cup in the subcontinent later that year. The first Test, in Colombo, petered out into one of the dullest of draws, with only 14 wickets falling over two innings in five days. The Test featured Brendon Kuruppu's snail-paced double-hundred on debut, still the slowest of its kind. But Kuruppu's feat was swiftly pushed to the background on the fifth evening of the game, when the New Zealand team bus made its way from the Colombo Cricket Club in Maitland Crescent, to the Galadari Hotel at the Galle Face Green Junction, not too far away.

One of the tourists, Martin Crowe, recalls how the decision to take a different route saved the team from disaster. "We travelled along the same route everyday, but on the fifth day we took a different route to drop off Phil Horne [one of the opening batsmen] to the physio," Crowe told Cricinfo. "When we got back to the hotel, we heard that a bus shelter not too far away had been attacked. We were told that it was on the same route that we would have normally taken. We were very lucky with our diversion."

The explosion occurred at the crowded Pettah bus station at rush hour, killing more than 110 and injuring nearly twice that number, when terrorists detonated a car laden with high explosives. There had been similar attacks in Kandy and Trincomalee, and the targeting of the capital showed the insurgency had gained ground dangerously. The attacks were blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the extremist group fighting for a separate Tamil state in the north.

The Guardian reported that the impact of the explosion was felt 10 miles away, and that fires broke out in the nearby Bank of Ceylon building as a result. There were reports of angry groups targeting Tamils in the area in the aftermath, looting shops and stopping vehicles to see if they contained Tamils. Police fired into the air to disperse the crowds and a curfew was imposed.

While the players were told to remain in the hotel, two visiting journalists ventured out to the site of the blast. One recalled the chaotic scenes and how edgy the soldiers and security personnel were, fearing follow-up attacks. One of the players disobeyed instructions and stepped out to check out the scene, landing in hot water with the management for doing so. Another was said to have packed his bags as soon as news of the incident came in. When the journalists returned to the hotel, the players crowded around them to find out more.

Ewen Chatfield, the New Zealand opening bowler, recalled in his biography that the players had been thinking of home from since when the attacks in Kandy occurred, before the first Test. The Colombo bombing was the last straw.

"When we got back to the hotel, we heard that a bus shelter not too far away had been attacked. We were told that it was on the same route that we would have normally taken. We were very lucky with our diversion"
Martin Crowe

"We had a meeting among the players and it was pretty unanimous that we should head home," Chatfield wrote. "Some of the team had a meeting with a Sri Lankan cabinet minister, but he couldn't convince us to stay. A deputation then went and arranged a meeting with the police, security and army, but they couldn't guarantee enough security for us to be happy about playing. If the terrorists wanted to make an international incident, the best thing for them would have been to have thrown a bomb over the fence at a ground we were playing at. You only had to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and you were history."

The Sri Lankan board, then headed by a cabinet minister, Gamini Dissanayake, did everything to persuade the players to stay on. Kuruppu recalls that the board even videotaped the road journey from Colombo to Kandy, the venue for the second Test, to show that it was safe, but the players' concerns overrode everything.

Nuski Mohammad, the board secretary, recalls how the talks between them and their New Zealand counterparts broke down. "They were very harassed despite the assurances given by the government and the board," Mohammad told Cricinfo. "We gave them the maximum security we could afford at that time. The New Zealand cricketers were not the target by any stretch of the imagination." Indeed, historically the LTTE had not targeted foreign tourists.

One of the touring journalists, on his very first overseas tour, remembers the amazing hospitality from the locals and how upset the country was to see the team depart.

The team had another meeting the day after the attack, at the end of which the decision to leave wasn't as unanimous as before. Sources revealed that the overwhelming majority was still in favour of returning home, though. Some of the senior players were understandably determined to head back because they had wives and children back home. The younger members of the squad were inclined towards staying back. Four players - Danny Morrison, Andrew Jones, Dipak Patel and Horne - were making their first overseas tour.

Finally, after being confined to the hotel for three days, the players departed.

The repercussions stung Sri Lanka. The country did not host a Test or a one-day international till 1992, when the Australians arrived. In contrast, in the period from the attack till 1991, the Sri Lankan board sent its youth and senior teams on 17 overseas tours.

When the players hopped on the plane back to New Zealand, some may have thought they had seen the worst. But for those who returned five years later, there was a bigger shock in store.

Bibliography
Chats: Ewen Chatfield's Life in Cricket with Lynn McConnell (MOA Publications, 1988)

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo