Sri Lanka will play a two-match Test series in Pakistan, starting December 11 in Rawalpindi.
It is the morning of March 3, 2009. Sri Lanka are playing their second Test against Pakistan in Lahore after the first Test has ended in a tie. The Sri Lankan team is travelling from their hotel to the Gaddafi Stadium in a 42-seater bus for the start of day three. Everything seems normal, business as usual.
As per protocol, both the team buses of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, along with the match officials generally travel together in a convoy, with an ambulance, and armed security forces at either end of the motorcade. Incidentally, the Pakistani cricketers don’t arrive on time and the security decides to leave without them.
While the Sri Lankan team bus has the team squad and the support staff, Simon Taufel (on-field umpire), Steve Davis (on-field umpire), Chris Broad (ICC match referee), Nadeem Ghauri (third umpire), Ahsan Raza (fourth umpire), Peter Manuel (regional umpire manager) and Abdul Sami (liaison officer) occupy a van.
After travelling for around 10 kilometres, the cavalcade is at Liberty Square now, metres away from the stadium. A white car intercepts the bus. Just then, a dozen armed gunmen appear from their ambush behind trees and open fire. Armed with assault rifles, grenades and even anti-tank missiles, the attackers, who are seemingly in their early 20s, target the cavalcade.
The evidently trained gunmen crouch to aim their weapons. A sudden burst of gunshots and explosions grips the air. The tyres of the team bus are busted with a flurry of bullets hitting the vehicle.
Conditioned by the history of terrorism in Sri Lanka, the visitors promptly duck to the floor of the bus. One of the players shouts, “Go, go” and the bus driver, Mohammad Khalil, plants his foot on the accelerator.
Call it the presence of mind of the bus driver to accelerate in the nick of time or plain luck, a rocket launcher aimed at the bus just misses its target and lands on the road. A grenade is rolled under the bust but doesn’t go off.
Just behind the bus, the match officials’ van is also in the line of fire. Unlike Khalil, the driver of the van does not have a fortune on his side. He collapses after being shot. Liaison officer Abdul Sami also gets shot. Local umpire Ahsan Raza has a bullet pierce his back, not before he cautions the other match officials to “get on the floor”.
Battered and bruised, the Sri Lankan team bus enters the Gaddafi Stadium with 25 bullet marks on it. The players are helped to the dressing room where they stay for some time, before receiving first aid.
Raza would later suffer life-threatening injuries to the lungs and spleen. The Sri Lankan cricketers did not suffer any fatal wounds. Skipper Mahela Jayawardene and vice-captain Kumar Sangakkara escaped with minor injuries.
A bullet fizzed past Jayawardene’s ear. Thilan Samaraweera, among the Sri Lankan cricketers injured, took a bullet to his thigh while another shrapnel cut through Tharanga Paranavitana’s chest. Ajantha Mendis received shrapnel injuries in his neck and scalp. Paul Farbrace, a member of the support staff, severely injured his forearm.
Eight people, including two civilians and six policemen, lost their lives. 20 were injured.
After receiving preliminary medical attention for about five hours, the Sri Lankan cricketers were flown by two Chinook helicopters to a military airbase. The team then took off for Colombo via Abu Dhabi at around 10 pm.
In the wake of the attack, the then ICC president, David Morgan reckoned international cricket in Pakistan to be out of the question in the foreseeable future. Pakistan were later dropped as the co-hosts of the 2011 World Cup.
It took six years for any form of international cricket to return to Pakistan.
In 2015, Zimbabwe came to the Pakistani shores for two T20Is and three ODIs in Lahore. Despite a suicide bomber setting himself off outside the Gaddafi Stadium during the first ODI, that killed one person, Zimbabwe went ahead with the entire tour.
However, that did not have any immediate positive effect. Despite the Pakistan Super League final held in Lahore in 2017, a World XI series and T20Is against West Indies, the Men in Green tasted a real sense of redemption only this year when Sri Lanka toured for a three-match ODI series and a three-match T20I series in September-October.
The fact that no other team but Sri Lanka is returning for a Test series makes the occasion all the more special. It’s like the feeling in the Aussie camp when the notorious trio of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft returned to the team’s squad for Ashes 2019 post their ball-tampering ban. It is that emotion, extrapolated many times over, which will be felt by the Pakistani cricket fan, who has been starved of witnessing the country’s stars in action on familiar turf.
After the attack, a 21-year-old Sri Lankan player was received at the Colombo airport by his parents in 2009. That tour of Pakistan was the first national call-up for the young Suranga Lakmal. At 32, he is now the leader of the Lankan bowling pack as The Lions gear up to tour the cricket-crazy nation, again.
Life has, in many ways, come a full circle for Lakmal, like it will, for the Pakistan cricket fan who’ll finally see ‘proper cricket’ in whites on home soil, something eagerly awaited for over a decade