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When cricket’s 9/11 sounded death knell for the future of the sport in Pakistan

When cricket's 9/11 sounded death knell for the future of the sport in Pakistan

The team was airlifted out of the stadium, to the Air Force base, by an army helicopter, and was sent back to Colombo on a special flight © AFP

On March 3, 2009, the Sri Lankan team had been attacked by 12 armed terrorists, when their bus was en route to the stadium for the third day of the Lahore Test. The players escaped with injuries, although six security officials had lost their lives. The incident was a death knell for cricket in Pakistan, and no international team has toured the country thereafter till date. Karthik Parimal looks back at the fateful day.

We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were injured and yet we were not cowed. We were not down and out. “We are Sri Lankan,” we thought to ourselvesKumar Sangakkara, during the MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture in July 2011.

Pakistan, like most countries in the Indian sub-continent, reveres the sport of cricket. It has played host to some memorable Tests, and although a few touring players occasionally cribbed about the lack of facilities back in the day, most teams have left the place with some fond memories. However, post the September 2001 terror attacks, things had taken a turn for the worse. Its repercussions were felt in the cricketing circles as well, and Pakistan bore the brunt, as other nations began to refuse to tour the region citing security concerns. To criticise the decision taken by other boards would be naïve, since Pakistan had indeed become on the hotbeds of unrest.

The first signs of trouble surfaced in May 2002, when a bomb blast outside Karachi’s Sheraton Hotel — New Zealand team’s place of stay — forced the Kiwis to terminate their tour.  Six years later, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination led to Australia postponing their visit to a later date, Champions Trophy being pushed to October 2009 and West Indies calling off their tour. The 2008 Mumbai attacks meant that all sporting ties between Pakistan and India were to be put on hold, until further directed by the Indian government. This led to the cancellation of India’s scheduled tour of Pakistan in 2009, and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) quickly named Sri Lanka as the replacement.

The series commenced on February 21, 2009, at Karachi. The track there provided little assistance to the bowlers, as one triple hundred [Younis Khan], two double hundreds [Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera] and a century by Kamran Akmal had been essayed. The game ended in a draw, and the two teams headed to Lahore, the venue for their next Test. It is said that the PCB didn’t want Lahore to host this game, owing to tensions in the region, but their proposal to shift the Test to another city was turned down by a government official.

The fateful Test

The first day of the Test saw Sri Lanka amass 317 for the loss of four wickets. Whatever little help the bowlers could use vanished the next day, as the visitors piled 606 runs, with Samaraweera registering consecutive double-hundreds. The Pakistani batsmen too made hay, finishing the day at 110 for one. This game too, it appeared, was trudging towards a draw.

When cricket's 9/11 sounded death knell for the future of the sport in Pakistan

The windshield of the Sri Lankan team bus bears a bullet after it was attacked on its way to Gadaffi Stadium on March 3, 2009 in Lahore, Pakistan © AFP

On March 3, 2009, the morning of the third day of the Lahore Test, the Sri Lankan team left their hotel for the stadium a few minutes ahead of the Pakistani side. Apparently, Thilan Thushara, who was miffed at the thought of having to bowl on a lifeless track that day, joked that he wished a bomb would go off so they would all be sent back home. “Not thirty seconds had passed (since Thushara’s statement) when we heard what sounded like fire crackers going off,” said Sangakkara while speaking about the incident during his Cowdrey Lecture.

A dozen armed gunmen obstructed the Sri Lankan team’s bus near the Liberty Market, and in an organised manner, began their assault. They first deflated the tires before spraying bullets through the windows. The entire team ducked for cover, lying on the floor and trying to evade as many shrapnel as possible. Several grenades were hurled, all of which fortunately missed the bus and failed to explode. The firing, however, continued, and Mahela Jayawardene was the first to state that he’d been struck on the shin. Samaraweera was hit on the back of his leg, whereas a bullet narrowly missed Sangakkara’s head. “As I turn my head to look at him (Samaraweera) I feel something whizz past my ear and a bullet thuds into the side of the seat, the exact spot where my head had been a few seconds earlier,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, the bus driver, Mohammad Khalil, who had remained brave in the face of adversity, stepped on the accelerator in an attempt to race towards the stadium as soon as Tillakaratne Dilshan screamed at him to keep driving. A rocket was launched at the bus, but it missed and landed on the road and after apparently avoiding 25 bullets, the bus entered the stadium, where a bemused crowd had been waiting.

In the dressing room, it understandably took the players some time to come to grips with the situation.

When cricket's 9/11 sounded death knell for the future of the sport in Pakistan

The casualties list featured Ajantha Mendis (above), Suranga Lakmal and Chaminda Vaas too © AFP

Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana, however, were rushed to hospital to have their wounds, which were severe than the rest, treated. Paranavitana was struck on his chest and was blood-soaked. Sadly for him, it was his debut Test series, and having recorded scores of zero and nine during the first game at Karachi, the shrapnel wound certainly added injury to insult on this tour.

The casualties list featured Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal and Chaminda Vaas too.

Soon after, the team was airlifted out of the stadium, to the Air Force base, by an army helicopter, and was sent back to Colombo on a special flight. The tour had been called off.

Aftermath of the attack

Chris Broad, who was the match referee during that fateful Test, perhaps aptly summed it up when he said in an interview to ESPN Cricinfo, “Ijaz Butt, the chairman has come out and said that friends will come to Pakistan, but I don’t think they have any friends in world cricket that will go to Pakistan after this has happened.”

Surely enough, a number of teams cancelled their proposed tours to Pakistan, and the country lost the opportunity to host the 2011 World Cup, a prestigious event that was later anchored by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. During the last year, a few teams, mainly Bangladesh, had almost agreed to tour the nation, but refrained at the last moment. It has now been four years since the dreaded incident, and Pakistan is still devoid of international cricket on its turf. ‘Home games’ have been played at various venues across the world, but primarily at the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they’ve tasted decent success.

Apparently, the authorities had received information of a possible attack on the Sri Lankan team well before the Lahore Test, but due to shift in powers in the government, not much heed was paid to the threat.
Although none of the terrorists were caught immediately, arrests were eventually made and it was revealed that the gunmen belonged to Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, militant groups with close links to Al-Qaeda.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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