It is axiomatic that terrorist strikes are almost always designed to win sensational publicity. The horrific attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team by unidentified gunmen in Lahore seems to be bereft of any purpose other than gaining maximum exposure in a subcontinent that is obsessed with the game. The Sri Lankan cricketers escaped thanks to a combination of luck and pluck, with five of them and an assistant coach suffering fairly minor injuries. Aside from being well trained and armed with automatic rifles, the dozen or more terrorists who ambushed the coach in which the cricketers were travelling had grenades and rocket launchers; fortuitously, one grenade thrown under the bus did not detonate. News reports suggest that the Pakistani police, six of whom died protecting the team, did a courageous job of resisting the attackers. The attack brings to a tragic end the Sri Lankan tour of Pakistan, which was contrived after India pulled out of a tour scheduled for January-February 2009 following the Mumbai terror attack. Although financial considerations may have played a role in persuading the Sri Lankan cricket board to fill the void, it was a brave decision — one that reflected a commitment to keep cricket alive in the midst of security concerns. As a country that has experienced the forfeiture of cricket matches and the abandonment of tours owing to LTTE terror attacks and threats, Sri Lanka could empathise with Pakistan. Australia and West Indies chose to forgo their first round matches in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup; in 1987, a New Zealand Test series was truncated following a car bomb attack in Colombo.
But this is the first time cricketers themselves have become the target of a terrorist attack. It brings to mind the gunning down of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in 1972. Unable to play a single Test match in 2008, Pakistan suffered a painful kind of cricket isolation before, in a generous show of solidarity, another South Asian country agreed to tour. Aside from ensuring that no international cricket team will be willing to tour Pakistan in the conceivable future, the Lahore terror strike makes it highly improbable that the country will be allowed to co-host the 2011 World Cup on its own soil. (The International Cricket Council has already announced that it will meet soon to review this event.) Cricket’s most terrifying day highlights the perilous security situation in Pakistan. The costs of sponsoring, temporising with, or going soft on terrorism have never been higher. The silver lining is that fortune has once again favoured the brave — Sri Lanka’s talented cricketers who chose to place the spirit of the game above personal welfare.