The hidden benefits of Sri Lanka's return to Lahore

Lahore braces for Sri Lanka's visit
Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 3rd T20I, Lahore October 28, 2017

Thilan Samaraweera had left his cellphone in his hotel room that morning, as he often did. So, following the attack on the team bus, when his wife Erandathie tried to reach him, she had no choice but to call his team-mates.

She tried Mahela Jayawardene first. "Yes Thilan is here, but he can't talk right now," he had told her. When Kumar Sangakkara said the same thing, she began to fear the worst. Why, if he was fine, would they not let her speak to him?

It is with levity that Samaraweera now speaks of the day he was shot in the thigh. The humour puts a little mental distance between him and one of his most harrowing experiences. But there is no mistaking the trauma the attack had inflicted. "It took about 18 months for my wife and daughter to recover from it," he had said. "Personally, for a long time, I had a fear of getting on the team bus and sitting in the same seat. I'm afraid of firecrackers for life."

Initially it does seem surreal that only eight years later, the same team will return to the same city, to play at the same stadium in the vicinity of which so many cricketers had nearly lost their lives. Eight people actually did. And yet, in another light, the decision to tour is utterly unsurprising. Sri Lanka have always been among the likeliest teams to tour Pakistan. Their boards have long been the chummiest. Now, with so many of the high-profile survivors from 2009 having retired, and two other international sides having played in Lahore, memories have sufficiently faded, public opinion has begun to turn, and just enough water has slipped by beneath the bridge.

As with anything in Sri Lanka, it is with the use of a Machiavellian lens that the board's decision is best deciphered. If SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala has campaigned loudest for the Lahore match, it is because he has most (in Sri Lanka) to gain. Sumathipala is an unelected "national list" MP, which means he is in parliament only because he has made himself useful to more powerful (elected) officials.

And what is sending a team to Lahore but a further exercise in proving himself an asset to his governmental superiors? A cricket tour to Pakistan - however brief - will be regarded in Sri Lanka as a minor diplomatic triumph (previous Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse had promised his Pakistan counterpart that Sri Lanka would resume touring, but failed to do so). Sumathipala, who along with sports minister Dayasiri Jayasekara has said he will accompany the team on the tour, is likely to return to parliament with his store of political goodwill increased, and his position in government made more secure. Having already made a brazen play for the top ICC job this year, Sumathipala has proved he has grand ambitions in cricket administration as well. Perhaps an indebted PCB will be of use to him down the line.

Only on the political and administrative fronts does the tour make any sense at all, in fact. The cricketing consequences, for Sri Lanka, have been dire. When the sports ministry ruled that only players willing to go to Lahore would be considered for the UAE games, the government effectively condemned the team to a series loss. Players had to be yanked out of the ongoing Sri Lanka A team tour of the West Indies, a cricketer who has recently had trouble holding his place in the side was made captain, and Nic Pothas - the replacement coach - himself ended up needing to be replaced.

And while publicly the board stated it did not wish to disrupt the team, SLC did nevertheless prove a distraction. After players had collectively made clear their reluctance to tour, officials took to making individual approaches over the past two weeks to convince cricketers of the tour's merits, while the ODIs were still ongoing. "I don't understand why they have to do this, when we are struggling to win even one match," a player had complained at the time. "What they are loading on us is an unnecessary problem."

If the match goes off without incident - given the success of the World XI series, there seems no reason why it shouldn't - cricket in Pakistan, and by extension, cricket in general, will have made a substantial stride. The most charitable take on this potential advance is to suggest that, having overseen Sri Lanka's cricket during the island's own wartime years, Sumathipala is sympathetic to Pakistan's plight. Perhaps there is an element of compassion there; a strand of altruistic motive.

But on the evidence of the preceding weeks, and the strange fashion in which this trip has come together, it is naive to believe anything else: it is politics that has cleared Sri Lanka's road back to Lahore.

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