When the high-profile PSL final gets underway on Sunday, among the thousands at the ground will be Meher Muhammad Khalil, the courageous bus driver who drove the Sri Lanka team to safety during the terror attack of 2009
Imran Ahmad Khan
Eight years and two days after he drove a bullet-ridden bus to Gaddafi Stadium, Meher Muhammad Khalil will be at the ground to watch the historic Pakistan Super League final. "I jumped out of my bed when I got a call from the Pakistan Cricket Board [inviting him to the game]," says Khalil, sharing his excitement. "Every year in March, there is a strange sense of despair that grips me but this time around, I hope the smiles don't go away."
Sri Lanka's Test tour of Pakistan in 2009 was the first time Khalil was given duties as a team bus driver for the PCB. There had been a one-off stint with the Pakistan Football Federation for a bilateral match but this, he says, was the first "proper experience".
"Just a day before the attack, I drove the players to a shopping mall and Kumar Sangakkara talked to me on the bus," recalls Khalil. "He asked me if they were safe in Pakistan. I told him if, God forbid, anything happens to them then I would stand in the way and give my life for them." Little did Khalil know that a near-death experience was only a few hours - and a few seconds by distance - away.
On March 3, 2009, Khalil's bus exited the Pearl Continental Hotel in Lahore and took the same route that had been used for the first two days of the second Test. The journey to the stadium normally took around seven minutes, as all the roads were closed to general traffic. Soon after they crossed the shopping mall, where Sangakkara and Khalil had that brief conversation the previous day, terror struck.
"First I thought these were firecrackers," says Khalil. The initial firing was aimed at the two police vehicles and the umpires' van tailing the team bus. The sound became louder and the frequency was too high for it to be firecrackers. "There was firing from everywhere," says Khalil, recalling that he froze for a few seconds as the security vehicles in front of the bus also came under attack. "Their initial aim was to hit the drivers of all these vehicles and stop us from moving. "
In the chaos that ensued, Sri Lanka's cricketers and coaches got off their seats and lay close to the floor of the bus. Shouts of "Go Go Go!" from someone in the bus spurred him on to press down on the accelerator. In between, a grenade had passed through from under the bus and a rocket-launcher strike had missed the bus. According to Khalil, the rocket only missed the bus because he had to turn it slightly to cross the main roundabout at Liberty Market. "Those two minutes are how wars must feel like," he says.
"I don't play cricket but God helped me do something that the cricketing world remembers me for now."
He drove straight through and covered the remaining one-kilometer distance without looking back. English does not come naturally to Khalil and he recalls that his first words to the players and coaches were in Urdu. Soon after he parked the bus inside Gaddafi Stadium, he stood at the door, gestured with his hands and shouted "Jaldi karein!"[Urdu for "Hurry up!"]
The players were surprisingly calm, Khalil recalls. As he shouted for ambulances and officials rushed to the scene, injuries started becoming apparent. Thilan Samaraweera, who had scored the second double-century of his Test career the day before, got a bullet to his thigh. Tharanga Paranavitana, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Thushara and Ajantha Mendis had shrapnel injuries. "There were 58 bullet holes on the bus," Khalil says. One of those, as shown in pictures from that day, seems to have been just a couple of feet above where the bus driver's head would normally be. "I just thank God none of us died."
Khalil was asked to park the bus in the hockey stadium across the street where he notified officials that personal items of players such as phones and chains were still in the bus. He was then taken to a police station for questioning. "Initially, the agencies took me as a suspect."
He recalls that some Pakistan cricketers - including Misbah-ul-Haq - came to get him from the station and then took him to meet the Sri Lankan players. This happened, according to Khalil, because both Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan had asked to see him. "They kept thanking me for saving their lives," says Khalil. "I was told by those around me that they even wanted me to go to Sri Lanka with them but I declined."
In the days that followed, Khalil was elevated to the status of a national hero. His presence of mind in the midst of all the chaos was credited for getting the team out of the situation just in time. TV appearances, cash rewards and a special state guest invitation from the Sri Lankan president came next. In a special ceremony organised by Sri Lanka Cricket a month after the attack, Khalil met with the players and their families. Sangakkara and Jayawardene also paid glowing tributes.
"Unforgettable!" says Khalil, about his experience of visiting Colombo. "Don't you think it's strange that I was driving the team with security protocol a month ago and now, in Sri Lanka, I was the one being driven around with protocol?"
In Pakistan, Khalil got cash rewards from various state officials. He complains today that funds promised by then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani never made their way to him. The country's president also gave him a civilian award for bravery. "Friends and family members who hardly ever met me now started calling me their best friend!" laughs Khalil.
Having worked as a driver with little to no savings, Khalil now found himself with enough money to start a business. He moved to Morocco and then South Africa in 2010 but returned to Pakistan in 2012, after a couple of false starts.
It was in Centurion where he met Jayawardene and Sangakkara at a hotel while they were touring. "I left a message at the hotel reception and then got a call from Jayawardene," says Khalil. "I drove five hours with my friends to meet them and they were nice enough to give us tickets to watch them play."
He has not been in touch with any of the players apart from this one encounter. While he says he did not stay in touch with Sri Lankan cricketers because of distance, he was unable to meet Pakistan players because of their busy schedules and lack of access. "Our players are hard to get hold of," he says.
Khalil has been working as a bus driver in Lahore since his return from South Africa in 2012. Eight years after that dreadful day, he is not entirely satisfied with how things panned out.
"I don't care about the TV appearances and the money but people who called me a hero back then have forgotten me now," he complains. He says the least the PCB could have done for him was to give him a job for his actions that day.
A father of five, Khalil takes pride in his children sharing the tale of his heroic act with their friends. He says he is sure of where he stands in terms of what he did for the country. "I don't play cricket but God helped me do something that the cricketing world remembers me for now."