The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket players in Pakistan

Many of you in the US have heard in the news about the attack by unknown terrorists on the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan. On the one hand, it is very fortunate that none of the Sri Lankan players were killed and, moreover, the injuries they did sustain were not so serious as to be career threatening even. On the other hand, it is very sad that eight Pakistanis, mostly policemen, died and a cricket referee is in critical condition.

To fully appreciate this event, one has to understand how important the sport of cricket is in South Asia. Soccer is the number two sport here, but it is not even close in either the numbers or the enthusiasm of the fans of cricket. This is the first time that cricket players have been the target of a terrorist attack and so the attack takes on an added significance. In fact, there have been serious suggestions that the terrorists may well have gone too far and the attack may provoke a backlash against them.

There is a bit of history here. Some years ago, the Australian cricket team declined to go to Sri Lanka given the perceived danger here due to the Sri Lankan civil war. The Pakistanis stepped in and traveled to Sri Lanka in place of the Australian team much to the relief of the Sri Lankans, who feared that if no team felt safe in coming to Sri Lanka, international cricket would die in Sri Lanka. Recently, international teams have been refusing to travel to Pakistan for cricket matches because of the deteriorating security situation there. So the visit by the Sri Lankan squad to Pakistan was a deliberate reciprocal gesture to help out the Pakistani cricket team.

Pakistan really screwed up the security arrangements. The escort was lightly armed police and not Army or special forces. The vehicle the team was traveling in was not armored nor did it have bulletproof glass and tires. A British referee, who traveled in a separate van behind the players bus, has angrily denounced the Pakistani police for deserting the convoy when the attack began, explicitly calling them “cowards.” This is a hard statement to evaluate. The Pakistani police were armed mostly with handguns and surely were smart to take cover when faced with terrorists armed with AK-47s, grenades, and a rocket launcher. On the other hand, the attack occurred only a few hundred yards from a police station and reinforcements were slow to arrive. Evidence suggests that the police must have been at least somewhat effective as the terrorists were not able to approach the van carrying the referees and execute the occupants, which one would imagine would have been part of the point of the attack. (The van carrying the referees was immobilized when the bus driver was shot dead at the start of the attack. The bus carrying the players was stopped for ninety seconds, but then drove away under fire. A rocket launched at the bus missed, and a grenade thrown under the bus failed to explode. The driver’s presence of mind and the bad aim of the terrorist with the rocket launcher spared the cricket team from any deaths, though several were injured by bullets and shrapnel.) Pakistan also has been shamed by the fact that the terrorist all walked away after a 25 minute gun battle in the middle of a major city unharmed and unimpeded. Arrests have been made, but one gets the distinct impression that the arrests have the character of Captain Renault’s instructions to “Round up the usual suspects” in Casablanca.

March 3rd was a sad day for Pakistan. Foremost the lose of life, of course, but secondarily the long lasting damage to the country’s beloved sport. It will surely be many years before any international cricket team will travel to Pakistan. If the national team stays intact, they will have to play their “home” games on neutral turf, much to the dismay of their fans who want to cheer them on in person. And, just as if an American football team had to play its home games in some other city, there is a large financial loss of box office receipts. This will, in turn, damage the competitiveness of the Pakistani national team and that will have an additional long term effect on the sport in Pakistan.

People who know me, know that while I enjoy professional sports, I try to keep their importance in context. I may jump up and down and shout when the Seahawks score a touchdown, but I do not really imagine that the fate of the nation depends on the Seahawks making the playoffs. So, my discussion of the impact of the terrorist attack on cricket is not meant to raise the importance of sport to some inappropriate level. Rather, my observation of the love of cricket in South Asia tells me that the terrorist attack will be a real trauma to the national psyche of Pakistan.

Oddly, no terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the attack. This is fueling a great deal of speculation about the motives behind the attack. There are those in Pakistan who claim that the Indians were behind the attack in retribution for the terrorist attack on Mumbai that was organized in Pakistan by a terrorist group fighting for Pakistani control of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, the Lashkar-e-Toiba . Another theory has it that Lashkar-e-Toiba is behind the attack in retribution for the arrest of their leader by Pakistan in connection with the Mumbai attacks. Since this attack was an attack on Sri Lankans, other theorists are looking for a connection with the LTTE. Hopefully an investigation will “bring the perpetrators to justice” as the Pakistani and Sri Lankan governments have called for, but if the recent past is any indication, justice is in short supply in South Asia.




  1. Anna said,

    March 7, 2009 at 10:14 am

    What an amazing story. It brings me back to my ardent viewing of the Olympics when the Israeli team was slain by terrorists. It was with shock and dismay that I realized, for the first time, the deaths were only symbolic to the slayers. People aren’t symbols. The Sri Lankans must have been terrified. Their families must have been worried witless. And what was the point of the attack against a cricket team? It gets lost in the grief and fear.

  2. March 9, 2009 at 11:01 am

    […] with such a diverse range of expertise. It made me proud to be part of the Fulbright program. The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket players in Pakistan happened during the conference and, as you might expect, created quite a stir, especially just […]

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