Unitech Cup 2006 August 14, 2006

South Africa ready to pull out of tri-series

End of the tour for Ashwell Prince's boys? © Getty Images

A tournament billed as a clash between three of the teams most likely to wrest Australia's crown at next year's World Cup will now in all probability give way to a bilateral one-day series between Sri Lanka and India. This follows a bomb blast in Colombo on Monday afternoon which prompted the South African team to reassess their presence on the island.

Unless the ICC threatens them with punitive measures, the South Africans - already rattled after an explosion killed three on the final day of their Test series - will head home on the advice of their consulate and the security firm in charge of their security. The players are united in their desire to curtail the tour, and Gerald Majola, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, is sympathetic to their stance.

The explosion, triggered by a Claymore mine, took place in front of the popular Liberty Plaza shopping mall, killing seven and injuring 17. Four of the dead were army personnel providing an escort to, Bashir Wali Mohamand, the Pakistani High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, who escaped unhurt. According to the Sri Lankan government, the target was the Pakistani High Commissioner as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was disturbed about the close cooperation existing between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in defence matters.

Sri Lankan cricket officials and security experts said as much in a meeting with both the Indian and South African team managements, assuring them that the blast was a one-off. They insisted that security for both teams would be further beefed up. But with the blast taking place less than 2km from the Cinnamon Grand hotel where South Africa are staying, and just over 3km from the Taj Samudra which houses the Indians, there were more than a few worried players by mid-afternoon.

Torrential rain throughout Sunday night and much of Monday morning had already dampened any hopes of the tournament starting on time, and Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, said after the meeting with Sri Lankan officials that his team continued to be jittery.

"We are pretty worried," he said. "They tried to explain how a cricket event or the teams were least likely to be targetted. But this was quite close to home. It's fair to say that if we hadn't been playing today, a lot of our boys might have been over at Liberty Plaza."

With India having cleared a massive contingent for the South Asian Games, which starts here on Friday - the football team is already in town, staying at the same hotel as the South African cricketers - the stance from New Delhi was quite different. Having spoken to BCCI officials back home, Rajan Nair, India's media manager, announced that a further meeting was planned for Tuesday morning, and that the Indian team was protected by three layers of security at their hotel.

When asked if the prospect of a blast en route to the ground - Liberty Plaza is on the way to the SSC, where India were scheduled to practise on Monday afternoon - worried the players, he said: "Sri Lankan security officials are responsible for safety when we are travelling, and they have assured us that nothing untoward will happen."

Though Sri Lanka Cricket officials quickly came out and said that the tournament was unaffected, with Sri Lanka and South Africa expected to give it another go on Tuesday, the feeling of unease in the South African camp was palpable. Players hung around the lobby, waiting for news and asking their friends in the media for updates. By late afternoon, it became known that the team were keen to leave, and that officials back home in South Africa were weighing up the ramifications of a pullout.

Gordon Templeton, the team's media manager, told Cricinfo: "Our cricket board is in consulation with the consulate here and also our security firm. They will come to a decision based on that." Asked whether that meant not waiting for the meeting announced on the morrow, he said: "The decision will be taken by the board, and it may happen before that."

Several of the South African players voiced their fears privately. One told this correspondent: "Before we came here, we were assured that the problems were all up north. But this is the second bomb in a week, and we've also read of numerous assassinations." His views were echoed by Arthur, who said: "The situation seems to be getting worse too, if you watch the news and read the papers. We saw today that a truck full of explosives had been stopped just outside of Colombo."

The Indians, though, sang from an altogether different hymn sheet, perhaps acutely aware of the fact that they will be hosting the Champions Trophy in October, less than three months after the serial blasts on Mumbai's suburban railway network.

Sharad Pawar, the BCCI president, said that it was the host nation that had to take a decision, while Lalit Modi, the vice-president of the board, told Cricinfo: "What South Africa decide is their business. Let us not speculate. Let us wait for the facts and then decide. The series is on and we haven't heard anything to the contrary."

By nightfall, the South Africans were more or less ready to pack their bags. An ICC spanner in the works was unlikely, given that neither Australia nor West Indies was punished for boycotting matches in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup. With such a precedent to fall back on, it was a near-certainty that the triangular would become a South Asian face-off, inclement weather and terror attacks permitting.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo