Lahore is a city I had happy memories of-until last Tuesday. The Gaddafi stadium was the venue of our most famous sporting triumph, the World Cup win in 1996. But all that changed within a few terrifying minutes on Tuesday.
We had left the hotel at about eight thirty in the morning. It was to be the third day of a keenly contested game and the chatter aboard the team bus was about our prospects of dismissing the Pakistanis cheaply.
Security concerns were furthest from our thoughts. I knew that a vehicle drove about a kilometre ahead of our convoy to clear the road. Another escort vehicle was immediately in front. Besides, the distance from our hotel to the ground could be covered in about five minutes as all roads had been closed.
Usually, there are two escort vehicles for the team buses because the two teams travelled in one convoy. On Tuesday, the Pakistan team was late to start and we left on our own. As a result, there was only one escort vehicle ahead of us.
I was seated in front alongside the Manager, Brendon Kuruppu. The window curtain was open and I had a clear view of what was happening outside as the bus neared the large ‘Liberty’ roundabout.
It was then that I noticed a youth, about twenty years of age, well dressed in a beige trouser and a dark coloured shirt and carrying a backpack and a gun, take aim and fire at our convoy.
At first, the significance of what I saw didn’t sink in. We are sportsmen and especially in the Asian region, the reaction that we are accustomed to is one of adulation, where fans seek autographs and some of them even want to touch and feel us. Who, therefore, would want to carefully take aim and fire at us?
Those were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I watched the scene being enacted before me. I thought that this must be some conflict on the streets of Lahore that had taken a nasty turn. Fascinated, I continued watching.
Then I noticed two white vehicles, reversing at full speed. One of them, apparently out of control, hit the roundabout pavement. Two persons emerged from the vehicles and they too began firing-and again, they were taking aim at our bus!
It was then that I noticed that the gunmen, even though they carried sophisticated weapons, were not shooting bursts of gunfire. Instead, they were taking careful aim and firing a single shot at a time. There was no hint of panic or undue urgency-these were well trained men who knew exactly what they were doing.
As I watched, I saw the policemen escorting us engaging the gunmen-and some of them falling gallantly, sacrificing their lives to save ours. It is a scene I will never forget. One shot that was fired missed our driver by a few inches. And, then it dawned on me that their target was in fact, our bus; it was not crossfire that we were caught up in!
I heard Dilshan shout ‘Vaasy, Vaasy, get down’. I realised that most of our team mates had already hit the floor. There were cries of ‘veduna, veduna’ (‘we’re hit’) and groans and moans everywhere.
The team liaison officer shouted to the driver to get us out of the roundabout. We all shouted ‘go, go’. The driver told the liaison officer that he couldn’t get going at once as the gears had shifted to neutral. But somehow, after a few seconds and without panicking one bit he got the vehicle moving once again.
We were only about five hundred metres away from the stadium entrance. If we covered the first two hundred or so metres slowly, then our driver, Mehar Mohammed Khalil simply sped away for the next three hundred metres.
As we did so a projectile fired from a rocket launcher missed our bus and hit a nearby structure. Had it been on target, Sri Lanka would be mourning the loss of their cricket team today.
The stadium entrance, though large, is a tight fit for the wide bodied bus. Usually, the vehicle has to be slowly and carefully manoeuvered through it. In this instance, Mehar Mohammed Khalil went through it at high speed-and somehow, made it to the ground.
Now, we were counting casualties. Thilan and Tharanga were injured somewhat seriously. Kumar and assistant coach Paul Farbrace also had injuries that needed attention. They were whisked away in ambulances.
I called home. When I told my wife, Vasana, of the incident she told me to stop joking. I had to tell her that this was certainly not a joke and to inform my parents as well that despite the incident, I was not harmed. The television network CNN by that time had listed me among the players who had suffered injuries!
In the dressing room, there was some discussion as to whether we should return to the hotel. Given the nature of the attack, we were not sure whether there was more in store for us, should we decide to return. We decided against it.
A liaison officer returned to the hotel and went to the rooms that we occupied and collected our belongings and brought them to us. It was not the ideal way to say goodbye to Pakistan, but by now the tour had become a matter of life and death.
We were then airlifted to an Air Force camp where we stayed about three hours. From there, we were taken to the airport where an aircraft chartered at the request of President Mahinda Rajapaksa took us back to Colombo. We arrived in Sri Lanka at about 3.40 a.m. on Wednesday.
It is a relief to be back among family and friends but last week will change our lives forever. Most of us are still in shock. We go through the details of the incident over and over in our minds and wonder what might have been had one of those missiles or grenades found their target. It is indeed a miracle that we are all alive today.
There will be huge repercussions for cricket after Tuesday’s attack. Already, questions are being asked as to whether the Indian Premier League (IPL) will be staged on schedule.
Pakistan was slated to be a host for the next World Cup but that seems to be doubtful now. In fact, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh too will have to be quite convincing to remain as hosts for the tournament.
There are people of many faiths in our team. Whatever our religions, we believe that it was some kind of miracle that saved all of us on Tuesday. We feel for the families of the policemen who died so that we can live-and that is something that we will carry for the rest of our lives.
As for me, last Tuesday has had an enormous impact on my life as well. As I come to terms with what nearly happened on Tuesday, I realise that cricket is not everything-and that family considerations come first. Certainly, I will continue playing the sport I love but it is doubtful whether I will tour Pakistan again.
The team wanted to give Mahela a memorable farewell. Well, it was memorable alright and one could even argue that Lahore is our lucky city after all-for all of us are still alive to tell the tale.