The Sri Lankan team bus that withstood the attack © AFP

The attack was swift and brazen, the gunmen appeared well-trained but, though eight people were killed - including six policemen - a greater calamity seems to have been averted by providence, unexploded bombs and the bus driver's presence of mind. Mahela Jayawardene later credited him with "saving our lives".

The attack began as the 42-seater bus approached the upmarket Liberty Square, towards the end of its 10-kilometre journey to the stadium. The driver, Mohammad Khalil, says he was intercepted by a white car as he was about to turn at the roundabout and the gunmen - a dozen, say officials - emerged from behind trees and opened fire in a sophisticated, coordinated attack. Television footage showed several gunmen creeping through trees, crouching to aim their weapons and then running onto the next target.

First, they aimed at the bus tyres; at the sound of the shooting, the Sri Lankan players and staff hit the floor of the bus to escape the sniper fire. Khalil followed his instinct and jammed hard on the accelerator. "When the firing started one of the players shouted 'go, go' and somehow I kept my cool, ducked and sped the bus towards the stadium."

The momentum probably saved those on board, because though the bus was hit by 25 bullets, it avoided the heavier ammunition - a rocket, which landed on the road, and several grenades, which failed to explode.

Mahela Jayawaredene said later: "We owe the team bus driver our lives for his remarkable bravery in the face of direct gunfire. Had he not had the courage and presence of mind to get the bus moving after the initial attack then we'd have been a far easier target for the terrorists."

The area then turned into a battlefield as security forces returned fire. The commandos travelling in front of and behind the team bus got into action, drawing the terrorists' fire and allowing the bus to head for the stadium.

Australian freelance cameraman Tony Bennett said people inside the stadium heard explosions followed by bursts of machine gun fire. "Next thing we knew, the Sri Lankan team bus rolls up being sprayed by bullets. Players were getting carried into the dressing room."

Once at the stadium, most of the Sri Lankan players stayed inside the dressing-room. A few tried to get on with normality; Dilhara Fernando strayed onto the the balcony, talking on his cell phone and Muttiah Muralitharan calmed himself down with a cup of tea.

As senior PCB officials planned the team's evacuation, the former Pakistan wicketkeeper Wasim Bari, now the PCB's Human Resource officer, rushed Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana to the Services Hospital.

Back at the ambush site, the gunmen had, incredibly, all managed to escape but had left behind evidence of the scale of their attack. Security experts defused two car bombs and recovered a stash of weapons including grenades, three kilograms of explosives, a pistol and a detonating cable. Broken glass littered the road next to a gun cartridge and an empty rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Blood stained the front seats of a vehicle used by Pakistan's elite force, the van raked with gunfire with its wheels shot up and radio system disabled.

Soon after, the players were on the move again - this time by helicopter, to a military air base and then onward to Abu Dhabi and Colombo.