x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Reliving the moment that shook the world of cricket

Paul Farbrace, injured in the Lahore attack on Sri Lanka's team bus in 2009, tells Paul Radley the sport still has the healing touch.

Frabrace was airlifted to Colombo after the attack.
Frabrace was airlifted to Colombo after the attack.
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"If you see Percy Abeysekara, please tell him I said hello," Paul Farbrace said, with a sincere stress on the "please".

"Him and his friend brought me a ham sandwich, wrapped in a banana leaf, and a bottle of water. They won't have thought any more of it, but it meant everything to me."

Confined to a hospital bed in Colombo, flanked by armed security guards as he recuperated from surgery to remove shrapnel from his arm, Farbrace was feeling a long way from home.

In the year-and-a-half he had spent as the assistant coach of the Sri Lankan national team until then, he had never been inside a hospital, save for a few routine inoculation jabs.

These were drastically different circumstances that had changed the landscape of world cricket for ever.

On March 3, 2009, Sri Lanka's bus was attacked by gunmen as it approached Liberty Roundabout in Lahore, en route to Qaddafi Stadium for the third day of a Test match in Pakistan. Previous to that, cricket had felt immune to terrorism.

Farbrace had been to the Punjabi city before, the previous summer when Sri Lanka played in the Asia Cup, and he liked it.

A few days before the assault, he had met up with Yasir Arafat, the Pakistan all-rounder who he knew well from his time as Kent's overseas player in England, to talk cricket at the Gloria Jean's coffee shop right by the Liberty Roundabout. He had not even considered the need to take a security guard with him then.

He and some of the other overseas members of Sri Lanka's support staff had been planning to drive to see the Wagah retreat ceremony, at the nearby border-crossing to India, the next day. Again, no thoughts of any extra protection.

It never happened. After the ambush, Farbrace and five players who were also injured in the crossfire of the attack had their wounds treated in the dressing rooms at the stadium.

They were transported to an airbase by helicopter from the middle of the cricket ground, then later flown home to Colombo, where four players and their coach were taken to Nawaloka Hospital.

The Englishman abroad could have felt very alone, were it not for a substantial fraternity of well-wishers.


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"The service they provided [at the hospital] couldn't have been any better, but the armed guards next to my trolley made me perhaps a bit more nervous than I should have been," he said.

In the room next to his, Ajantha Mendis, the new spin-wizard and rising star of world cricket, was awaiting an operation to remove shrapnel from his head.

Mendis speaks so little English that his post-match interviews are conducted via a Sinhalese translator, usually his captain, Kumar Sangakkara.

However, Farbrace said the young spinner knows more English than he lets on, and he was thankful for that, given that it helped him get by while they were convalescing.

"Whenever anyone came to visit him, they came to see me, too," Farbrace said. "His mum and two sisters came to see me every day.

"She doesn't speak English, but she told me through Mendis that they would be my family while I was there as my family were back in England."

The families of all four players who were hospitalised - Mendis, Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana - looked in on the Englishman whenever they visited their own.

They were not the only ones. The "Percy Abeysekara" of whom Farbrace spoke is Sri Lanka's ubiquitous flag-waving cricket cheerleader.

His simple gift of a sandwich was far more gratefully received by the stricken coach than the doting supporter might be aware.

"You don't get through too many days when you don't think about it," Farbrace said. "Obviously I have permanent scars to remind me of it.

"But we were the lucky ones. People lost their lives."

Eight Pakistanis died in the crossfire.

"It was a needless loss of life," he said. "We weren't there fighting a war, we were there to play a game of cricket.

"I think it is a tragedy for the Pakistani people that now they don't get the chance to see their heroes playing.

"I've seen what sport can do, how it can put a smile on people's faces, even during a time of war."

Pakistan have not played a home match on their own shores since; opponents will meet them only on neutral ground such as the UAE.

This Thursday will mark two years since the attack. Ironically, on the anniversary, Pakistan will play a World Cup match in Colombo, against Canada.

Pakistan's team remain popular in these parts. Sri Lanka's main city is decked with billboards carrying images of cricketers, mainly the likes of Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan, but Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's captain, is everywhere, too.

There has been no lingering animosity between the sides. When they met for the first time after the attack, in the 2009 World Twenty20 at Lord's, the players intermingled and stood shoulder to shoulder for the national anthems as a show of solidarity.

Time has passed sufficiently for the focus of the two sides to be on cricket rather than terrorism. All the talk ahead of today's World Cup group meeting at a spruced up R Premadasa Stadium has been of things as banal as Malinga's returning fitness, or the prevalence of ticket-touts.

Such mundanity must seem like bliss for those who experienced Lahore.

Farbrace, too, has moved on, both literally and emotionally. While his former charges continue their pursuit of the US$3 million (Dh11m) prize for winning the World Cup, he is now economising with the rather more modest numbers of county cricket.

He left Sri Lanka at the end of his two-year contract in September 2009, when he was offered the job of head coach at his home county, Kent, in England.

Pre-season training starts in just over a week's time. Where once that might have meant weaving through the palm trees in Hikkaduwa, now he jokes that the furthest his players will be venturing is Whitstable Beach.

He remains close to those he has left behind. When Mendis made an unlikely half-century in a recent Test against India, he immediately called his former coach/fellow outpatient, just to tell him he had hit a six in international cricket.

Farbrace also made a point of contacting Mahela Jayawardene to congratulate him on his century against Canada in Sri Lanka's opening match in Hambantota.

The former captain was more eager to discuss the prospects of his favourite football team, Manchester United, however.

"I definitely miss it, 100 per cent," Farbrace said. "The tough thing is watching the World Cup, thinking it would have been great to have been involved and that might have been my only chance.

"You might never get another chance in international cricket. I genuinely hope they do well and think they have a great chance of winning it."