A bomb blast in May 2002 targetting the French naval technicians in a bus outside the Sheraton and Pearl Continental Hotels in Karachi where New Zealand’s cricket team was staying caused the Kiwis to terminate their tour. Five years later Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination led to Australia cancelling their tour of March 2008, the Champions Trophy was then shifted from Pakistan to South Africa in 2008. The 2008 Mumbai attacks gave a pretext to India to increase our isolation by terminating our mutual sporting ties, calling off their scheduled cricket tour in 2009.
To offset this vacuum Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) invited Sri Lanka (SL). We have enough experience with the Indians to have been prepared for the blowback. On March 3, 2009, the morning of the third day of the Second Test match in Lahore, a dozen armed gunmen ambushed the Sri Lankan team’s bus near Liberty Market. The assault was meticulously planned, the militants firing to first deflate the tyres of the vehicle, then spraying bullets through the windows, but aiming high so that only six Sri Lankan players received minor injuries, mostly from glass and ricochets. The quick thinking bus driver, Mohammad Khalil, feted afterwards as a hero in Sri Lanka, held his nerves and sped away while the second police escort vehicle giving covering fire (the first vehicle had all its policemen killed in the first burst of automatic fire). Eight Pakistani security personnel and civilians were killed in total, including the bus driver of the vehicle following carrying the umpires. Evacuated by helicopter from Qaddafi Stadium, the Sri Lankans returned to Colombo by a special flight.
Given the amount of food and water in their backpacks, them fire pattern aiming high showed that the attackers’ primary aim was not to kill but to hold the cricketers hostage, but for what ransom? India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) had given birth to and trained the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE). At that time the LTTE Chief, Prabhakharan, alongwith remnants of the terror group, was finally cornered by the Sri Lankan Army at Killonochi. India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee had desperately tried for weeks to persuade the Sri Lankans to let Prabhakharan go. Was the timing and target just an amazing coincidence? The commissioning of this “false flag operation” being outsourced to local terrorists had a dual purpose (1) to free Prabhakharan in exchange for the Sri Lankan cricketers and (2) to isolate Pakistan in sports. This “outsourcing” had RAW’s trademark all over it. My comments on TV than were drowned out by “skeptics” of the kind who still do not believe that the “Ganga” incident was engineered by RAW in 1971 to stop overflights between East and West Pakistan. On 4 March, 2009 the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Rohitha Bogollagama said that he could not rule out LTTE’s involvement in the Lahore attacks, some European intelligence sources supported this suspicion.
Like most South Asian countries Pakistan is cricket-crazy, for our public it is extremely frustrating that no international cricket has been played in Pakistan for some time. While the Indian Premier League (IPL) provides entertainment, it is not the homegrown spectacle we earnestly desire. Moreover it was really painful to see how our far more talented players have been ostracized by IPL. India has quite successfully isolated us in cricket in particular and sports in general.
The Pakistan Super League (PSL) currently being played in the UAE is like a breath of fresh air for cricket-starved Pakistan fans. Capturing the imagination of the viewing people in Pakistan, even with mostly retired foreign players, the second edition of PSL in the UAE has more than lived up to its promise. Hosting the PSL final in Lahore will be an appropriate response to the threat of terrorism, conversely not being able to do so would send a message of caving in to the threat posed by terrorism, a victory for the terrorists. The recent resurgence of terror incidents, especially in Lahore, cast doubts on any international stars being amenable to playing in Pakistan despite the additional inducements offered. Gen Qamar Bajwa offered full backing of the Pakistan Army to the Punjab CM for security. This could be double-edged sword, law and order being a provincial subject, if nothing happens Shahbaz Sharif will take the credit. If something does happen, guess who gets the blame?
The go-ahead for the final in Lahore on March 5 has seen a ticket sell-out, cricket lovers want to see their heroes in a thrilling encounter at home. While some of the international players are expected to come given the enormous financial “incentives” on offer, one does not expect to see either Sangakkara or Jayawardene, both of whom were injured in March 2009 and must have nightmarish memories of the traumatic incident. Even without international stars, the spectacle is worth it.
Taking the calculated risk, foolproof security must be put in place but it is vital that all the measures are not made public. With hundreds of Close Circuit Television Cameras (CCTVs) monitoring movement, the mandatory requirement of biometric verification will exasperate many spectators who will brave the risks in their thousands but this exercise is necessary. Plainclothes police and other security personnel with radio communication can mingle with the spectators and crowd both inside and outside the stadium. Covert video surveillance methods, snipers at strategic spots, etc must be done without fanfare and with minimum visible presence. The show of force must not be visible, Lahore must not be seen on primetime TV as an armed camp. That would be counter-productive to Pakistan’s image.
Militants have the option and ability to strike at a time and place of their choosing. Notwithstanding the security measures being a strong deterrent, with India scheming to harm us, RAW acting through their Afghan NDSI proxies, breach of security must be a zero-sum game. Pakistan’s success depends upon the message that we will not be held hostage either to the militants or to their handlers across our borders, An incident free PSL final will be a psychological victory for Pakistan and for the future of cricket in the country, Conversely that would be their success. The symbolic statement holding the event is that the people of Pakistan have the courage and resolve to stand up to the machinations of whoever is the enemy. Irrespective of which of the two teams wins the final, the real victors will be the people of Pakistan, the risk is worth taking
(The writer is a defence and security analyst).