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August 16, 2006
South Africa's decision to withdraw from the tri-nation series had all the inevitability of the monsoon showers that have lashed the city over the past week. Once the bomb went off near Liberty Plaza, and once the security team that they trust implicitly reckoned that the risk had become "unacceptable", it was only ever a matter of when the players would leave the country. In the end, it took two days of interminable waiting before what most people already knew was confirmed. The players will now leave early on Thursday morning, most likely in four batches.
Back in 2003, there had been much anxiety before their tour of Pakistan, with only last-minute parleys and detailed inspections of the safety measures convincing the players that it was safe to go. But ever since Nichols and Steyn came on board to assess security situations, the players have been content to follow their advice on such matters. Once Faisal Nagel, the security officer accompanying the team on this tour, sent a report to the board in the wake of the Monday bombing, saying that the situation was too dicey to stay on, the players' minds were made up.
That much was clear even on Tuesday evening, after it was announced that the Dubai-based Olive group would carry out an independent security assessment. Far from being flustered, the mood in the South African camp was upbeat and relaxed, with players convinced that they would be heading home, no matter what. It helped that Gerald Majola, the Cricket South Africa chief executive, had initially come out in their favour, though pressure from government quarters had subsequently prompted a rethink.
So while the media speculated about what might happen, several of the players spent Tuesday night in the Cheers Pub at the team hotel, having dinner and light-hearted games of pool while joking about which flights they would take back home. The team management had apparently asked for 27 business-class seats for the team, but with such a bulk booking not possible, there were plans to send the team in three groups, via Doha, Singapore and even London.
By Wednesday morning though, with no decision taken, there was an increased element of jitteriness and belligerence. A team meeting in the morning reportedly had the team deciding to head home, with or without the blessing of the board. By early afternoon, with the Olive report being sent to Cricket South Africa, it was certain that they would leave, and all that remained was for administrative hurdles to be surmounted. Majola, who had been on vacation before this crisis broke, hurriedly convened a press conference at 3:30pm (7pm Sri Lankan local time) in Johannesburg, but by then Sri Lanka Cricket had already been informed of the decision to withdraw.
An email sent by Majola to Duleep Mendis spoke of the warm relationship that the two countries shared, but reiterated that the situation was too dangerous in South African eyes for the tour to go on. And by the time Arthur read out Majola's statement to the media - no questions were entertained - Sri Lanka Cricket and the BCCI had already announced their plans for a three-match series to be played at the Sinhalese Sports Club, where drainage facilities are markedly superior to that at the Premadasa.
The very fact that the Indians weren't keen on a five-match series - they will leave Colombo more than a week ahead of schedule - suggests that they too have a few concerns about the situation. Under the circumstances, it makes little sense to point fingers at the South Africans for bailing out. With the rain constant and the security cordon tight, boredom and a siege mentality were nearly inevitable. A half-hearted performance with minds back home and nerves on edge would have done no one any favours, least of all the crowd.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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