x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cricketers toured the country no-one else touched

Sri Lanka was one of the few cricket associations who were prepared to tour Pakistan, when most nations were boycotting it.

Sri Lanka's cricketers paid a heavy price for agreeing to tour a country nobody else was prepared to visit. They only stepped in after India cancelled a much-anticipated January-February series here due to simmering political tensions between the two countries over the Mumbai terrorist attacks last November. That cancellation was the third major cricket event called off in Pakistan in the past year, after Australia refused to tour in March and the ICC postponed the elite eight-nation Champions Trophy set for August until 2009.

It was a disaster for the Pakistan Cricket Board who said at the time that the Indian pullout would lose them at least US$25 million (Dh91.8m). While Sri Lanka initially committed to fill the Indian void the tour came into question after the country's sports minister, Gamini Lokuge, disbanded the interim national cricket board and sacked its chairman Arjuna Ranatunga. But in December Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapakse finally gave the green light, making the team the first to play a Test in Pakistan since South Africa in Oct 2007.

"Sport is an effective means of promoting connectivity between nations and thereby enhancing friendship and mutual goodwill between countries," Sri Lanka's foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama was quoted as saying at the time. Barely two months later and his team was being helicoptered out of Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore after masked gunman opened fire on their team bus, wounding eight members of the tour party ? seven players and a coach.

The Sri Lankan team first played international cricket in 1975, and were awarded Test status in 1981, which made them the eighth Test playing nation. Routinely seen as a cricketing minnow, they transformed themselves into a major force during the 1990s, winning the 1996 World Cup by beating Australia in the finals. Since then they have continued to be a major force, reaching the finals of the 2007 World Cup where they lost to Australia while nurturing some of the best talent in the world.

Perhaps their best-known star is spin-king Muttiah Muralitharan, who has underpinned their success by backing up the batting heroics of Sanath Jayasuriya and the now-retired Aravinda de Silva. The injured players included the star batsman Thilan Samaraweera, captain Mahela Jayawardene, vice captain Kumar Sangakkara, Tharanga Paranavithana, Thilina Thushara and Ajantha Mendis. None have serious injuries.

* AFP