The bomb and after

THE LAUNCH OF THE UNITECH CUP was such a joyous occasion with the rival captains, Jayawardene, Dravid and Boucher hoping for a highly competitive triseries. But then a bomb blast in Colombo and the subsequent pull-out of the South African team queered the pitch.-V. GANESAN

The South Africans won several friends for their brave performance in the second Test. But, by withdrawing from the tri-series, they have lost much goodwill, writes S. DINAKAR.

It was a rainy day in Colombo. And an afternoon of busy traffic, too. Cabbie Premasiri was muttering under his breath, unable to conceal his rage at the lack of space to manoeuvre his vehicle.

We were traveling to the Sinhalese Sports Club ground where the media passes for the Unitech tri-series were being issued. After that it would be a rush to the Premadasa Stadium for the inaugural contest between Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Premasiri finally found a relatively free stretch and put his foot on the accelerator. The car gathered speed, and then swerved to the right as Premasiri's eyes settled on chaotic scenes on the adjacent road. A host of policemen surrounded people in distress. We could hear too the wail of the ambulance.

"Sir, I think there is a problem," he said and switched on the radio.

"Seven people have been killed in a bomb blast near Liberty Plaza on Colombo three," boomed an urgent announcement.

SACHIN TENDULKAR... adding so much to the team through his sheer presence, according to his skipper Rahul Dravid.-V. GANESAN

The car came to a screeching halt. Premasiri was worried. "Sir, this is the time my son returns from school in this area," he said, his face a picture of anxiety.

He soon reached for his mobile. A short conversation with his wife was followed by a sigh of relief. His son had safely reached home.

There is this human element to the civil unrest in Sri Lanka that is overwhelming. In the larger canvas of the ethnic conflict in this picturesque island, cricket is no more than a speck. But then, the game is passion-driven here and acts as a unifying force. It has its relevance.

We were in Sri Lanka to cover the Unitech ODI tri-series involving the host nation, India and South Africa. This event, despite the depleted nature of the South African team, had competitive possibilities.

Then arrived the bomb blast in the Colombo downtown area. Things changed.

It was soon evident that major trouble was brewing in the South African camp. The blast had occurred just a kilometre away from the hotel. The seniors in the side were concerned about the attack by the Tamil Tigers that left seven dead in a buzzing shopping area. They wanted to fly back home.

With the outfield heavy and soggy after being pounded by rain, the match at the Premadasa Stadium was abandoned. It could still be played on the reserve day if the weather improved.

In the event, in six days filled with suspense, tension, often endless deliberations and persistent rain, one competition ended without a ball being bowled, a team pulled out, and the first game of a two-nation series, born out of circumstances, saw only 3.4 overs being bowled, the reserve day included.

Back to August 14. There was a bizarre silence at the Premadasa Stadium. But the Taj Samudra, where the Indian and the Sri Lankan teams were staying, was where much of the action was.

The CEO of Sri Lanka Cricket, Duleep Mendis, held a meeting with the team-managements of India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Security around the team hotel was tightened, both at Taj Samudra and the Chinnanmon Grand where the South Africans were camping.

Mendis said, "The tournament will go on. We will do everything possible to protect the players. This was a one-off incident. The teams have been reassured."

The Indian camp appeared satisfied with the Lankan response. The South Africans were still anxious about security. The South African manager, Goolam Rajah, did not seem entirely convinced. "The bottom line is that nobody can give you any complete guarantee regarding security. I am interacting with my board on a regular basis." Coach Micky Arthur said the players were worried about their safety.

Under pressure from their families, who had seen the images of the bomb blast in Colombo on television, many of the South African cricketers were under pressure to leave for home.

However, contrary to the impression that they were a worried lot, the South Africans appeared relaxed at the hotel. Rumours were doing the rounds too, of a rift between the seniors and the younger players in the camp.

Meanwhile, SLC officials were trying their best to convince the South Africans to change their mind. Following a midnight meeting at the team hotel involving the South African team-management, SLC officials and senior police officers, things did appear bright for the host even if the weather remained dull.

It was felt that a clearer picture would emerge after a 10 a.m. meeting between Mendis and the team-managements on August 15. But speculations flew around, until evening, when South Africa conveyed its decision to stay on till the security team appointed by the ICC submitted its report. But the South African media manager Malcolm Templeton had also said, "If the report says `No' then we leave." If the South Africans remained in Sri Lanka, the final would be stretched to September 2 and the abandoned first game would have been held on August 29.

The statement from Brian Basson, Cricket South Africa's general manager of cricket affairs read, "Cricket, police and security officials have assured us that the highest levels of security are now in place in Sri Lanka to ensure the safety of the players, which has been paramount in our deliberations."

He said the CSA had also been informed by the South African High Commisioner in Colombo that the "the team and cricket in general do not appear to be targets in the civil unrest in Sri Lanka." These words would hold little meaning the next day.

The Indians went about their business without any worries, although the long hours spent at the team hotel had left many of them bored and restless. Manager Sanjay Jagdale asserted that the spirit in the side was high. He had been briefed by a member of the Indian High Commission and Team India was asked to adhere to certain guidelines, the primary among them being about keeping the security informed about their movements at all times.

Mr. Jagdale is an affable, straightforward person. He and media manager Rajan Nair worked in tandem, which was good to see. Mr. Nair has to be among the better media managers appointed by the Board in recent times.

Team India had made three requests to the SLC — bullet-proof cars, more security on the routes, and extra policemen in the hotel. The Lankans were quick to oblige. "The relations between India and Sri Lanka are extremely good. The Indians have been very understanding in this situation," said the host team's efficient media manager Samantha Alagama.

The SLC remained hopeful. Said its secretary, Adel Hashim, with a smile, "as far as we are concerned, the South Africans are staying." The smile did not stay for long.

The South African bombshell was just around the corner. On August 16, barely 24 hours after it had been asked by the ICC to assess the upgraded security arrangements in Colombo, Olive Group, the security agency, concluded that a "situational threat" though not a targetted one, existed for the teams from the Tamil Tigers. It said the risk level to the cricketers was unacceptable. These findings matched the report from the security agency of CSA, Nicolls and Steyn, whose officer was travelling with the team. The decks had been cleared for the South Africans to withdraw, without having to pay a hefty fine since the Olive report was an commissioned by the ICC.

India and Sri Lanka were then scheduled to meet in three official 50- over day games at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground on August 18, 20 and 22.

Despite the birth of a new series, the South African pull-out evoked considerable anger in Sri Lanka. When contacted by this correnpondent, Inspector General of Police, Colombo, Mr. Chandra Fernando, said none from the Olive Group had approached him.

"What security agency are you talking about? No one from the company (Olive Group) you mentioned came to me. No one spoke to me. The whole thing is amusing."

Considering that he had been a key member of the security team that held discussions with the South African team-management, Mr. Fernando's words were shocking and raised serious questions about how the Olive group report was prepared. Where was it written? And with whose inputs was it put together?

In another newsbreak by The Hindu (Sportstar is its sister publication) Shane Dullewe, Security Consultant for Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), said the biggest threat to the South African team on its tour of Sri Lanka had resulted from the carelessness of its own security officer.

Mr. Dullewe disclosed that Faisal Nagl had misplaced four special passes issued by the ICC's Anti Corruption Unit (ACU) to those who sought to enter the players' dressing room during the second South Africa-Sri Lanka Test in Colombo. These passes were subsequently recovered by the Sri Lankan officers.

"Just imagine what might have happened had these passes gone to the wrong hands. Somebody could have smuggled bombs into the dressing rooms. I handed the passes over to the ACU officer for that series, Martin Hopkins," Mr. Dullewe said.

The ICC's anti-corruption officer for the ongoing series, Col. Noor, confirmed that the ACU had been informed about the incident.

Former Sri Lankan cricketers were unable to hold back their anger (see box). A South African was distinctly unhappy too. Richard Venter, the coach of the St. John's School side from Johannesburg, that had been in Sri Lanka for more than a week, said he was "disappointed and dismayed," after the school council back home decided that the team should return.

He fumed, "The entire thing has been blown out of proportion by the media back home. They are making it seem as if there are bombs dropping in Colombo every minute, which is simply not true. Ours is a respectable school and it would have been under considerable pressure in South Africa had it decided to stay here. We have not felt as if we are under any threat. The boys are happy."

The captain of the team, Omphile Ramela, said, "At first we were worried. But once we came to know the real situation, all of us felt relaxed." His team-mates were unanimous as they said, "We want to stay. We don't want to leave."

Cricket Victoria's Emerging Players side also decided to cut short its tour of Sri Lanka by three days due to security concerns. Team manager Shaun Frances Graf said, "I don't think there is a security problem here. For me it's no different here than walking on a street in London or Los Angeles. But we have come here with a young side, and we have to look at the issue from a young player's perspective. Some of the boys were worried after the blast. And we spoke to their parents back home. And they were anxious about their safety here. They wanted to have their children back. You see there is this threat perception."

Indian captain Rahul Dravid, a popular man in Sri Lanka, said he had been saddened by what had happened. "Nobody could be blamed. It is a difficult time for all concerned."

Dravid reiterated his faith in the Sri Lankan authorities, the intelligence agencies and the Indian High Commission. None from his team had walked up to him and said he felt threatened by the situation, he said.

Dravid was happy that the matches had been shifted to the Sinhalese Sports Club ground. "Actually we were more concerned at the soggy ground conditions at the Premadasa Stadium. The SSC has better drainage facilities."

The SSC might be better equipped to cope with the rain, but the sheer intensity of the downpour meant only 22 balls could be sent down in the first of the three matches.

Ironically, the sun had shone brightly on the morning of the match. But then, the charming Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene, who knows a thing or two about Colombo's uncertain weather, got his quick prediction right.

The winds from the Indian Ocean can power the clouds at great speeds. "Look at those clouds, they are dark and they will be here soon," said Jayawardene as he dragged his cricket coffin through the hotel lobby. Before he could step into the team bus, it had begun to pour.

Ajay Jadeja, in his role as an expert on television, quipped, "I was planning to do the pitch report. Now, I have to do the weather report."

The cricketers spent more time at the breakfast tables in the team hotel. Harbhajan Singh has lost none of his humour. He is a blithe spirit who can laugh his way through troubled times. Sachin Tendulkar, back in the Indian side after a five-month break, seems relaxed and happy. "He adds so much to the team through his sheer presence," says Dravid.

Sanath Jayasuriya wades into those boiled eggs and then asks, "Why is so much fuss being made only about my age? Brian Lara is not young either, but nobody asks. I am also, perhaps, the fittest among all these experienced cricketers." The Man from Matara has a point. He may be 37, but still moves like a cat.

Meanwhile, the South Africans leave the country. They have not been the most popular bunch of players in Sri Lanka. "They have chickened out," is the common refrain. Serious questions are being asked about the composition of the ICC-commissioned security team and the process adopted by it, which let South Africa off the hook.

South African batsman A.B. De Villiers dismisses talks of dissent between the seniors and the younger players while arriving at the decision. But he can do little to address the anger among the Sri Lankan fans. The South Africans won several friends for their brave performance in the second Test. By withdrawing from the tri-series, they have lost much goodwill. There was precious little cricket in Colombo. But what a week!

CRITICAL COMMENTS

A majority of the illustrious former cricketers from Sri Lanka, who spoke to Sportstar, were critical of South Africa's decision to pull out of the Unitech tri-series.

The CEO of Sri Lanka Cricket and former Lankan captain, Duleep Mendis, said South Africa decided to withdraw despite the presidential-level security put in place for them by the government. Expressing astonishment over the South African decision, he came down heavily on the security firm employed by the ICC. "They prepared their report sitting in Dubai. I did not see any of them in Colombo."

Former Sri Lanka captain Anura Tennekoon said, "The issue, I feel, has been blown out of proportion. You see one of the visiting teams, India, has no problems with security. Why should it be any different for South Africa? The SAF Games are being held in Colombo too."

Tennekoon, one of the Lankan batting greats from the past, felt, "the South Africans had over-reacted." He said, "They had played a two-Test series here and there were no issues regarding their safety. He added, "The bomb explosion was basically a one-off incident."

Arjuna Ranatunga, among the most influential captains in cricket history, said, "These teams do tend to make too much out of any such incident in the sub-continent. Actually these things are happening in all parts of the world. That is today's reality."

He also believed the Lankan Board could have handled the situation better. "The government should have been brought into the picture more. I don't know whether this was the case. We faced a similar problem during my days as captain when New Zealand wanted to go back. The government and the board worked together then to ensure that New Zealand stayed. The players who wanted to leave were given the option to do so. But they were replaced by the cricketers flying in and the tour went on."

Elegant opening batsman of the days gone by, Siddath Wettimuny, said, "From our perspective, it does look as if the South Africans over-reacted. They were offered top security. It is also a fact that sporting events or sportspersons have never been targetted in such attacks here."

Wettimuny, however, added, "You see perspectives differ, and in the end, who are we to say how other minds should work? These countries are paranoid about such incidents of violence."