The day cricket lost its innocence

Back in August 2006, when a bomb outside a shopping centre about a kilometre from their Colombo hotel prompted the South Africans to abandon a tri-series and head home, a Sri Lankan newspaper called them chickens, a point it emphasised with a cartoon that depicted one or two of the older players with wings.

But there were no caricatures recently, as a shell-shocked Sri Lanka team arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport on a chartered flight from Abu Dhabi. Instead, there were only fervent hugs from teary relatives and an ambulance for Thilan Samaraweera, who took a bullet in the leg during the Lahore terror attack that has turned the cricket world upside down.

In an article for the Cricinfo website that he dictated while in transit, Kumar Sangakkara spoke of how the 12 gunmen had shattered one of the subcontinent’s few remaining illusions—the idea that cricket, followed with such fervour from Lahore to Colombo, from Mumbai to Dhaka, would never be a target of terror.

“We had always felt pretty safe in Pakistan, to be honest,” he said. “It shows how naive we were.
We realise now that sports people and cricketers are not above being attacked. All the talk that ‘no one would target cricketers’ seems so hollow now. Far from being untouchable, we are now prize targets for extremists. That’s an uncomfortable reality we have to come to terms with.”

Extremism and terror are no strangers to the average Sri Lankan. The Ranasinghe Premadasa Stadium, the biggest in the land, is named after the president who was killed by a suicide bomber on a bicycle during a May Day rally in 1993. Six years earlier, New Zealand’s three-Test tour of the island had been cut to one after a car bomb planted by the Tamil Tigers killed more than 100 people at a bus station.

“We have been brought up in a background of terrorist activities,” said Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan captain who had hoped to end his reign with victory at the Gaddafi Stadium. “We are used to hearing, seeing these things—firing, bombings. So we ducked under our seats when the firing began. It was like a natural instinct.”

Although the Pakistan Cricket Board has defended the security arrangements, some of the Sri Lankan players said they had been slacker compared with the one-day series they played in January. “I think that security for the Test tour was relatively relaxed when compared to the three-match ODI series,” said Tillekeratne Dilshan, who had scored a brilliant century on Monday. “There was massive security cover for the ODIs, but I think they would have never expected such attacks on cricketers.”

Dilshan spoke in graphic detail about the moments when time appeared to stand still on the big roundabout near the Liberty Market. “The driver, in a state of shock, stopped the bus for a few minutes as the bullets started hitting the windscreen a few inches above his head,” he said. “I shouted ‘drive fast, drive fast’ as the gunmen started spraying bullets. If not for the heroic deeds of the driver, things would have been totally different.”

Sri Lanka now have no assignments until the Twenty20 World Cup in England this June, and Jayawardene admitted it would take time for the players and coaching staff to get over the ordeal. “There were no life-threatening injuries to any of our players, but they have been psychologically hit,” he said. “Hopefully, reuniting with their family members would heal them faster.

“For about 20 minutes, I thought I would never be able to return to Sri Lanka alive. We were helpless and just hiding behind the seats even as the bullets were being fired and players getting injured. I am a Buddhist by religion and I think we have done some merit in our previous births to have escaped with minor injuries. We want some time now to be with our families to get rid of this nightmare.”

Though Sangakkara felt for the people of Pakistan, who will now be deprived of cricket on home soil for the foreseeable future, he admitted that going back there would be a very tough decision. “Pakistan is a great country with a strong cricket tradition and very hospitable people,” he wrote. “We like playing cricket here, but the presence of a small minority pursuing their own agendas at any cost will surely prevent tours for the foreseeable future. I sincerely hope that a solution can be found with time but assume Pakistan will first need a neutral-venue solution for their home games.

“Will I go back? When you have been through what we have experienced, when you have been targeted by terrorists yourself and been so fortunate to escape, it changes your thinking. It is a big question, which cannot be answered now.

“I suspect, too, for us it can only be answered as an individual. Our families will never feel the same about us leaving to play in Pakistan. That is sad—for Pakistan and world cricket.”—

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