All overseas tours require political and security clearance from the Indian government. In 2004, opinion was sharply divided on the team’s proposed visit to Pakistan. The government was more anti- than pro-tour and the BCCI was undecided on the issue. The board was like a batsman at the crease, unsure whether to go forward or back.
Initially, it decided to test the waters by sending a security delegation to Pakistan to assess the situation on the ground. I was a member of this security team, along with Professor Ratnakar Shetty of the BCCI and Yashovardhan Azad, a top man from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India. We landed in Lahore in a blaze of publicity, with media and television networks tracking our every move. Our luggage was collected by the airline staff and delivered directly to the hotel, while we were taken from the airport to meet the secretary of the Ministry of Interior.
The ministry downplayed the security issue, calling it a mamooli masla, a trivial issue, that had been hyped by the media. We were told that the Pakistani people and politicians were in favour of the tour and the authorities supported the plan to hold matches in Karachi and Peshawar.
Senior officials assured us that Pakistan was ready to host the Indian team and intelligence agencies were keeping a close watch on various terror groups. There is no threat, they told us with extraordinary confidence. One officer provided additional perspective to convince us that the Indian team would be safe. A white-skinned American in Anarkali is under a bigger threat, he said.
It was obvious that Pakistan desperately wanted the tour. The PCB needed the money that the sale of television rights would bring. Also, Pakistan’s reputation was at stake. A military regime unable to provide security to a visiting cricket team would make for awful optics – it would destroy the image of the army generals in power.
Irrespective of Pakistan’s position, India couldn’t ignore the hard facts. Pakistan was unsafe, if not dangerous, territory. The recent incident of a bomb explosion shattering the windows of the hotel where the New Zealand team was staying and causing injury to some of the players was fresh in everyone’s mind. New Zealand abandoned the tour midway and this only added to the narrative of Pakistan not being tour-ready. During meetings, hardliner Yashovardhan was uncompromising, outlining concerns and insisting on certain requirements from the standpoint of security. Surprised by his tough stance and serious tone, the Pakistanis could only scribble notes and offer assurances.
The formal response came early the next morning and the message was brief. The Indian security wish list had been approved at the highest level. Instructions had already been given from the top to – as they say in sarkari language – “do the needful”. They had a request too: If anything else is needed, please tell us.
Reassured by the positive response, we set off to visit the venues for an on-ground assessment and to meet with local authorities. It was the most comprehensive Pakistan darshan that a tourist could hope for. The itinerary covered Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Multan, Gujranwala and the two security hotspots, Peshawar and Karachi.
We first went to Rawalpindi, where General Pervez Musharraf had recently survived an assassination attempt. The incident had taken place not far from the office of the police chief, who admitted that he had feared dismissal, even arrest, and hadn’t been sure at the time whether he would survive.
He took us through the arrangements for the tour, covering all the points flagged by Yashovardhan in the meeting with the ministry. We realised that the police officers were using the same security playbook while making presentations to us. The same assurances were repeated at every venue, the message being: Hamare bhai from Hindustan are most welcome.
In Multan, the meeting started with a short recitation from the Quran by a maulvi. We had been informed that this southern Punjab city was a land of docile, God-fearing, peace-loving people, and Sufi saints. There had not been any terrorist activity in the last three years and all possible threats had been eliminated. Also, in a proactive move, the police had rounded up all persons capable of creating trouble and put them in jail!
In Lahore, our next stop, the police briefing was conducted at the Pearl Continental Hotel, which was decked up for Basant, the equivalent of Diwali, with colourful kites decorating the lobby. Ali Zafar’s popular number “Channo” was blaring full blast in the background, adding to the festive spirit. DIG Tariq promised “foolproof security” with all systems fully cranked up for action. We are preparing for the worst but not anticipating it, he said, and held out a thinly veiled threat to miscreants: Lahoris are aware of our capability.
After Lahore, our next stop was Faisalabad. A textile hub, it was known as Lyallpur till the mid-1970s. The city is linked to Bhagat Singh and Sir Ganga Ram, and the cricket stadium was named after the poet Iqbal. Here too, local authorities had made extensive arrangements for hosting us. During the breakfast meeting, pizzas, sandwiches, and gulab jamuns were served in a show of Pakistani hospitality. The security plan was equally elaborate. The two-hour drive from Lahore to Faisalabad was a pleasant one. We went by the modern motorway, past the Sargodha Air Force base, the Ravi River and Gujranwala, escorted by a small contingent of Punjab Police commandos wearing black tracksuits.
Next on our itinerary was the frontier city of Peshawar (pronounced “Peshaaar”). Here, the writ of the government didn’t run beyond the city limits, guns were sold on thelas at street corners and rockets could be home delivered. This posed a major security challenge for the tour.
We met the governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) at his official residence, an imposing colonial bungalow with a long driveway through vast manicured gardens where we saw herds of deer grazing peacefully. This tranquillity, however, couldn’t mask the turbulence in the neighbourhood.
In Karachi, which was next on our itinerary, we met General Javed Zia, the director general of Rangers, Sindh. As the head of the elite force, the general was responsible for law and order in the province. He confirmed that his crack troops were prepared to meet any situation and all threats had been analysed and responses readied.
After declaring that peace prevailed in Karachi, he outlined a security plan which was similar to a slick military operation. Its main features were: Transit roads: Closed to traffic, entire route lined with sharpshooters and Rapid Action Force. Snipers to be deployed on terraces of buildings. Hotel: Players to stay on a security-sanitised floor. No visitors allowed, all calls to be monitored. Security personnel in and around the hotel. Stadium: Control room set up, Rangers in the stands, which would have CCTV coverage. Mobile patrolling in the vicinity of the National Stadium. Total security cover: 1,300 Rangers on duty. Additional 50 for team escort purposes.
The security recce confirmed that the Pakistan government was willing to do whatever it took for the tour to go ahead. That it was ready to deploy the extra beat constables and commandoes, the bomb disposable unit and the Rapid Action Force to make the guests from India feel safe. When top guns show intent, the wheels move.
Of course, none of this made Pakistan as safe as Switzerland. A newspaper reported that the sports minister of Punjab had been abducted and released after 23 days, after paying a hefty ransom. Surprisingly, neither the abduction nor the news of his resuming office made it to the front pages. Both items were buried on the inside pages of local dailies – a confirmation of sorts that security dhamakas were routine – koi bada masla nahin hai. To borrow SRK’s famous line: Bade bade shehron mein chhoti chhoti batein hoti hain!
Back in India, the security delegation submitted its report. The Indian government decided it was fine, politically, to send the team to Pakistan and that security concerns about Peshawar and Karachi could be overcome by limiting the duration of the team’s stay in the two cities. Ironically, political biggies who had initially opposed the tour executed a neat somersault and insisted on Karachi hosting a game. These flexible politicians, as expected, were quick to take credit for the statesman-like breakthrough to improve Indo–Pak relations.
Excerpted with permission from Pitchside: My Life in Indian Cricket, Amrit Mathur, Westland.