This week’s warning from Temple Trees that there is a ‘possible terrorist threat on the Sri Lankan cricket team’ during their tour of Pakistan, came as a bitter blow to PCB’s efforts to stage international cricket again in the country.
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Sri Lanka Cricket has done the right thing by putting the ball back in the government’s court, requesting for a reassessment of the security in Lahore and Karachi where the six games of the two week tour will be played. Even if the government gives a clean-chit, more players pulling out from the tour is inevitable now.
Given Easter Sunday’s carnage and fingers being pointed towards government lapses, authorities will be extra vigilant when it comes to safety. Undertaking a tour of Pakistan is a sensitive matter as it was there the national cricket team came under machine gun fire a decade ago.
The first security assessment done by SLC was a comprehensive one with no less a person than former Air Force commander Roshan Gunathilaka travelling to both cities to study the arrangements. A similar assessment should be done by the security establishment to assess how credible the threat is. Then those responsible can arrive at a decision whether to tour Pakistan or postpone the trip.
Let the authorities also be told that what was in place last time Sri Lanka toured Pakistan in 2017 for the one-off T-20 International.
A special armoured bus carried the Sri Lankan team from the airport to the team hotel and to the ground. The bus provided increased protection for the team even against improvised explosive devices. The team members themselves were covered by elite Pakistani forces. The distance from the Lahore airport to Pearl Continental Hotel where the team was staying is 15 kilometers and along the road armed forces were placed inch to inch. Not that it mattered as the entire city was shut down to make sure the team was safe. The road that the team was traveling on was lit up as well and security forces were not taking any chances. The routine followed when the team travelled from the hotel to the ground and back to the airport.
The security detail was so meticulous that you sometimes questioned whether cricket should go on at the expense of such a disturbance to everyday life in the city. Pakistan security forces did not leave anything for chance.
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The Pearl Continental turned into a fortress for the duration of the Sri Lankan stay. There were some four layers of security protecting the team with snipers as back up on the top floor of the hotel overseeing every move of the players and support staff.
The Pakistan government said that the Sri Lankan were being given security that is usually accorded to the Heads of State. To put it plainly, this was the Sri Lankans’ moment to feel like Donald Trump. Not just the team, but the entire contingent that travelled from Sri Lanka were looked after very well and it must be said that nobody felt intimidated. For once, you started to realize the value of a Sri Lankan passport.
The situation is actually better right now. The last time Sri Lanka toured Pakistan Shahid Abbasi was the Prime Minister. Now a World Cup winning cricket captain is the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Imran Khan is his name. More than anyone else, Imran desperately wants to see Pakistan hosting international matches again. He will do all within his means to make sure that the Sri Lankans not only leave his country unscathed, but this will be a good advertisement to rope in other cricket playing nations as well.
Even before the Sri Lankan team was targeted, Pakistan wasn’t the most fashionable country to tour for other teams, particularly the western nations. The scorching heat tests your reserves and resolve and often teams find it tough competing out there. Karachi for example has been hosting Test cricket for half a century and in 41 Test matches, Pakistan have lost only twice. There’s very little to do in Pakistan after cricket, as there is no night life over there and Ian Botham once summed up the situation when he said, ‘Pakistan is the kind of place to send your mother-in-law on an all-expenses paid trip.’
Pakistan has been Sri Lanka’s strongest cricketing ally and Sri Lanka has an obligation towards that country. To start with, we wouldn’t have got Test status if not for Abdul Hafeez Kardar, a former Pakistan Test captain turned politician who went onto become a Cabinet Minister.
Sri Lanka’s cricketing isolation would have continued if several leading Pakistani players hadn’t teamed up with Indian stars to play a friendly game in Colombo just prior to the 1996 World Cup when a cricketing boycott was looming large.
Pakistan were also the first team to tour Sri Lanka soon after the Easter bombings with their Under-19 team arriving in the island a fortnight after the attacks. A tour by the national cricket team will go a long way in ensuring international cricket returns to Pakistan. Sri Lanka need to help.