By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The national cricket team is due to visit Pakistan between September 27 and October 9 and are scheduled to play three one-day international games and three T20 matches.
A four-member Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) security team led by Secretary Mohan de Silva and accompanied by Marshall of the Air Force Roshan Goonetileke (chief security advisor), Chandima Mapatuna (head of international cricket) and Palitha Seneviratne (assistant manager anti-corruption and security) visited Pakistan between August 6 and 9. The security team inspected the National Stadium in Karachi and Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. They also held extensive discussions with Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) members and Pakistan security officials and expressed their satisfaction with security arrangements. Pakistan, for its part, has confirmed security arrangements afforded to visiting Heads of State for the team.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickramesinghe’s office had informed SLC last week it had received reliable information of a credible threat against the Sri Lankan national team. It had therefore been requested to reassess the situation before proceeding with the tour.
Consequent to this announcement, T20 captain Lasith Malinga and Test and Limited Over captain Dimuth Karunaratne besides eight other players have pulled out of the tour.
The national cricket team experienced a horrifying terrorist attack on March 3, 2009, during a test match played in Lahore. Around a dozen gunmen using grenades and rocket launchers attacked the bus transporting the team to the stadium. Six Policemen providing security and the bus driver lost their lives. Several players sustained minor injuries, and two cricketers sent to a hospital.
International teams have shunned visiting Pakistan after that. No test cricket has been played in the country since.
The last known major terrorist attack in Pakistan took place on December 16, 2016. An Army Public School in Peshawar as attacked by terrorists. Over 140 school children died during the attack.
Perceptions of Pakistan’s security situation have changed in recent years. National teams from Sri Lanka (2017) and West Indies (2018) have played the T20 format of the game in the country.
Pakistan initially proposed a tour of two test matches. The current agreement is for three 50 over games and three T20 matches. This tour’s importance, from Pakistan’s perspective, cannot be understated. It would be a precursor for visits by other international teams, especially for test series.
At this juncture, it is necessary to digress from a simple cricket tour. It involves relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan; a time tested all whether friend. Towards this end, a few relevant historical facts need recounting.
Relations between the two countries may have cooled over a recent incident. The Pakistan High Commissioner in Colombo having met President Sirisena recently issued a Press Release stating the latter had acknowledged Jammu and Kashmir as a “disputed territory.” The President’s Media Division issued a Press Release on the following day stating, Sirisena had given the High Commissioner a patient hearing but denied making such a remark.
Pakistan must understand and appreciate Sri Lanka’s difficult situation in its relations with India. Unlike Pakistan, Sri Lanka is not a nuclear power and can be easily bullied into submission as evidenced on several occasions since the infamous Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. It must walk a tight rope and keep India humored. Sri Lanka cannot afford taking sides in the regular spats between India and Pakistan. It is all that Sri Lanka can do to be neutral and remain silent on such issues. Pakistan should appreciate this reality in its dealings with Sri Lanka and other SAARC countries.
The High Commissioner’s recent blunder should not be allowed to diminish Sri Lanka – Pakistan relations, nurtured and developed over decades by successive leaders from both sides. Mistakes and misunderstandings do happen even among the closest of allies. Both countries need to move on.
During a recent exchange of views with an acquaintance on the cricket tour, he told me; “You should listen to the likes of Mahela and Sanga narrate their horrific experience in 2009. They thought they would die in Pakistan. Their families were petrified.”
The government faces a difficult situation in having to decide to send or not send the team. It is yet to recover from allegations of incompetence, having done nothing despite receiving prior warnings, resulting in the Easter Sunday massacre.
The Prime Minister has not divulged the source of “reliable information.” On the other hand, what he can do is to call for an immediate reassessment by dispatching another security team to Pakistan.
However, players who have already pulled out, and those sitting on the fence should consider the following factors.
The last known major terrorist attack in Pakistan took place on December 16, 2014, when terrorists attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. Over 140 school children died in the attack.
The last known major terrorist attack in Sri Lank took place on April 21, 2019. Terrorists detonated explosive devices, killing themselves and 259 people, mostly worshippers attending Easter Sunday Mass. It included 45 foreigners having breakfast in three leading hotels in Colombo. Over 500 sustained injuries.
In this backdrop, can Sri Lanka decline to play in Pakistan and expect foreign teams and tourists to visit this country at the same time?
There is no evidence to indicate, terrorists, attacking the Sri Lankan team in 2009 specifically targeted the Sri Lankans. Attacking a visiting cricket team was a means to an end. The objective was to discredit Pakistan as an unsafe country in the eyes of the world. It is no different to the foreigners who were targeted by Easter Sunday bombers. The objective was to discredit Sri Lanka’s image, destroy the tourism industry and the country’s economy.
Willis’ India and Pakistan Team 1996
During the World Cup series in 1996, Australia and West Indies pulled out from playing in Sri Lanka citing security reasons. Left to play with cricketing minnows Kenya and Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka needed a major team to send a message to the whole world. Indian and Pakistani players rose to the occasion and fielded a combined team of what became known as Willis’ India and Pakistan XI. Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Akram, Mohammad Azharuddin and Saeed Anwar, Anil Kumble and Waqar Younis all came to Sri Lanka in its hour of need. India and Pakistan had not played a bilateral series since 1989/90. Pakistan captain Wasim Akram stated: “We have no fears of any security in Sri Lanka. We are just relaxed, and it was like coming to Sri Lanka on a normal cricket tour.” Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga expressed his gratitude stating: “The Indians and Pakistanis have shown the world that Sri Lanka is safe to play cricket. They have been very kind enough to come and play good cricket.” His current silence is deafening.
These brave cricketers had arrived to play cricket in a war-torn country despite the assassination of the country’s Head of State by a suicide bomber in the streets of the capital less than three years earlier. They came leaving their petrified families at home.
Multi Barreled Rocket Launchers
LTTE overran the Elephant Pass army base during their offensive code-named Operation Ceaseless Waves in May 2000. Lives of thousands of Sri Lankan troops based in Jaffna ran the risk of annihilation. The Sri Lanka Navy could not mount a full-scale evacuation. Indian assistance was sought but declined. The government decided to procure Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers System (MBRLS) for the army. President Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan was the first to respond by dispatching equipment in use with their military and undertook an emergency operation of airlifting the MBRLS from Karachi. Stocks in regular use in training exercises were considered less likely to malfunction. It was a rare occasion of a nation assisting another nation at the expense of its defenses and national interests. The fall of Jaffna was averted, and thousands of troops in Jaffna saved due to the timely arrival of MBRLS from Pakistan followed by China, and the Czech Republic.
If not, thousands of mothers could have lost their sons, wives, their husbands, and children their fathers.
Dispatch of Urea
President Sirisena, in December 2017 appealed to Pakistan for an urgent shipment of 75,000 metric tons of Urea. Sri Lankan bureaucracy had bungled and failed to make timely purchases resulting in virtually nil stocks at home. Pakistan, as a policy does not export Urea during winter months due to domestic requirements. Only during summer months is Urea exported in case of surplus stocks. Pakistan nevertheless dispatched 40,000 metric tons which arrived in Colombo on January 2018.
Under 19 cricket team
32 days after the Easter Sunday bombings, this group of schoolboys arrived in Sri Lanka on May 23, 2019. Led by 17-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Rohail Nazir, the team played five 50 over games. They left their petrified mothers, fathers, and siblings at home despite the fact; the suicide bombers had specifically targeted foreigners in three five-star hotels.
These are a few instances of Pakistan and its people coming to the aid of Sri Lanka and its people. Security concerns for their cricketing men and boys were overcome. In some instances, assistance was given setting aside its national interests.
During the 30 year-long civil war, foreign teams visited Sri Lanka. They had faith in our government’s security arrangements and assurances of protection.
In this backdrop, our cricketers should think deep and hard of what course of action they should follow. There is more than a cricket tour involved here.
Other than new friends found since January 2015 who wish to change this country starting with its constitution, Sri Lanka has few genuine friends in the world. We, as a nation, should act in a manner to retain such friends. If not, Sri Lanka could find itself with no genuine friends.
In that event, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
SLC confirmed on Thursday night; the national cricket team would go ahead with the tour.