The phone has not stopped buzzing for the last few days for Meher Mohammad Khalil. Calls from the Pakistan and Sri Lankan cricket officials, requests from media houses to join them in studios, telephone interviews. The 43-year-old is surprised by the stardom and knows it would last just for a few days. Once the hype surrounding the T20 game in Lahore is over, he would be forgotten —reduced to just an ordinary driver behind the wheels of the Niazi Express bus making daily journeys to Islamabad from Lahore.
But in the run-up to the T20 game in Lahore, his heroic feats were remembered. Eight years ago, he was in the driver’s seat when the Sri Lankan team bus came under the attack of the militants near the Liberty Chowk. “It was raining bullets and grenades were hurled. The tyres of the bus were also hit by bullets. I could see the assailants firing at me. However, I did not lose my cool and pressed on the accelerator till the bus entered the Gaddafi Stadium where security forces surrounded us,’’ says Khalil.
Khalil was invited to Gaddafi Stadium on Sunday as a guest of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman. “I was honoured when the Sri Lanka Cricket president Thilanga Sumathipala requested me to accompany the Pakistan team for their next trip to Sri Lanka. It is so nice that even after so many years, they have not forgotten me,’’ says Khalil who was invited to Sri Lanka and accorded a hero’s welcome in the aftermath of the incident. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene took the initiative to financially reward Khalil.
“I am fortunate to have received so much of respect because in our country, the profession of a driver is never given its due. Though I still have nightmares about the incident, I am happy to be chosen by God that day to come out as a hero. It was a sad day for Pakistan cricket but it could have been so much worse,’’ he says. “I have tried to forget the incident but every time I pass through that route, there are shivers down my spine. I am so happy that the Sri Lankan team agreed to make this trip. My only regret is I am not there to drive them from the hotel to the ground this time.’’
Khalil is hopeful that the improved security will prompt more teams to visit Pakistan. “My dream is to have the Indian team travel to Pakistan and I want to drive the bus to take the team around in Lahore. A cricket tour between the two countries is the ideal way to break the political tension between neighbours. I believe guns and bullets offer no solution to any problems,’’ believes Khalil.
During 2009 when he was exploring job opportunities in South Africa, Khalil ran into the Indian players including MS Dhoni. There were a couple of games of the IPL being played in Centurion.
“Mahela and Sangakkarra were both playing in the tournament and they invited me to visit the hotel. There I was introduced to Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni. Both of them hailed me a hero and I invited them to come to Pakistan,’’ beams Khalil. “The security has improved drastically in the last few months and I am sure more international teams are going to come here,’’ he adds.
A cricket lover, Khalil misses driving the cricket teams and wishes the PCB fulfils its promise of offering him a job with the board, as assured by the former chief Izaz Butt.
The Band Stand Terminal is busy on the Monday morning with the Lahore-Islamabad bus ready to leave. Khalil adjusts his seat belt and ready for the four-hour haul. He would make the return journey in the evening — his daily ritual for five days of the week. It’s a mundane existence for the hero but he is at peace with himself away from the media glare and the hype.
“I am not special. Just that God wanted me to go through a test and I had passed it with flying colours,’’ signs off Khalil.