Despite burning many diplomatic bridges since independence, Sri Lanka have determinedly struck a balance when it comes to foreign policy with India and Pakistan, their two nuclear armed neighbours. This cordial relationship extends beyond politics and into cricket; Sri Lanka Cricket remains one of the closest allies of both Board of Control for Cricket in India and Pakistan Cricket Board.
At a time when tensions were growing in the region and international teams were not willing to tour Pakistan on security grounds, Sri Lanka were ever willing to support their neighbour. When they answered one such call and toured Pakistan in 2009, they had little idea that there will be no Test cricket in the country for ten years.
Sri Lanka’s players were on their way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore for the third day’s play of the second Test match when their team bus came under a terrorist attack. The next few hours were some of the torrid ones they will ever remember.
Thilan Samaraweera, the ever reliable middle-order batsman was fresh from back-to-back double hundreds and was enjoying the best time of his cricketing career. He sat next to Kumar Sangakkara, his best buddy as he usually does on the team bus.
As the team bus was approaching the Liberty roundabout, Samaraweera heard repeated gunfire. Initially, he thought that it was firecrackers.
“All of a sudden TM Dilshan, who usually sits in the first row started shouting, ‘down, down, down,’" Samaraweera said.
“We had lived through a civil war for 30 years and at school, they had trained us what to do and stuff like that in case of an emergency. So I ducked for cover underneath the seat and was thrown to the front of the bus as the gunfire became intense,” Samaraweera recalled.
“One of the bullets pierced my thigh. There was blood all over the place.”
Samaraweera fell unconscious. But Sangakkara recalls Dilshan shouting at the driver of the bus to get straight to the ground. Gaddafi Stadium is a few hundred metres from the Liberty roundabout.
Once the team was at the safe environment of the stadium, the injured were attended to and were taken to the nearby army hospital.
“Tilan was badly hurt and so was Tharanga Paranavithana. I felt really sorry for the guy. He had made his Test debut in Karachi and had been dismissed for a golden duck and then was run out in the second innings. Now he was shot. I wondered whether it could get any worse for anyone,” Sangakkara said.
Samaraweera’s situation was serious. The doctors informed that they need to do an operation to remove the bullet. He had a habit to leave his cell phone at the hotel and not to carry it to the ground.
As the news reached Colombo, the families started panicking. Sangakkara’s wife was to deliver the couple’s first child shortly and she was inconsolable. But the worst affected was the wife of Samaraweera. She knew that her husband wouldn’t carry his mobile phone to the ground and started calling his colleagues. But she couldn’t access her husband.
Eventually, when Sanga informed her that her husband had been injured but was out of danger, she fainted. She feared for the worst.
“She thought I was dead,” Samaraweera said. “My brother Duleep, who also played Tests for Sri Lanka, then called up the team management to find out what was going on. Then he relayed to her that I was fine. But until she heard from me, she was worried.”
“We had played the Asia Cup final in Pakistan the year before and the security was top class,” Sanath Jayasuriya, who had posted a hundred in that Asia Cup final against his favourite opposition, India, said. “In 2008, General Pervez Musharaf was still at the helm and they didn’t leave anything to chance. Unfortunately, a year later, there were lapses. I am not blaming anyone. After all, who would think that a cricket team will be targeted. I have visited Pakistan so many times and their hospitality is amazing,” Jayasuriya added.
“It was great gesture on the part of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to send a special aircraft to Lahore so that the team could be airlifted to Colombo,” Sangakkara remembered.
But there was a problem. The doctors had said that Samaraweera, who had undergone surgery was not fit to travel.
Mahela Jayawardene went up to Samaraweera to brief the situation. Samaraweera then informed his captain not to wait for him. “I will be fine. You guys go ahead. I will come on another flight,” he had said.
“Nothing doing. Either all of us are going together or we are staying with you,” Jayawardene had told Samaraweera.
Eventually, doctors agreed to airlift Samaraweera with a few doctors on board. There was a huge relief as the Sri Lankan Airlines flight came to Colombo.
While all players are carrying the mental scars, some are still walking around with physical scars. Suranga Lakmal, who was forced to pull out from the current tour in the 11th hour as he was down with dengue, was making his first trip with the Sri Lankan side in 2009.
He is left with shrapnel on his leg. The doctors have informed him that if he undergoes surgery, he will miss nearly one year’s cricket. Lakmal has therefore delayed surgery until he retires. But life is not easy for him.
“If they do a scan on my leg that returns blank because of the presence of the foreign subject. Another hassle is that I can not go through security at airports as alarms beep. I carry medical reports every time so that I can support my case,” Lakmal said.
Not many players were keen to visit Pakistan again after the incident as their lives were put in danger. But most of them have moved on and have indicated that they will visit the country again. The players are ever so grateful to the driver of their bus and the members of the elite forces who were killed during the ambush.
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