Over the past decade the security screen and watchful eye surrounding cricketers and cricket officials have increased substantially. There are good reasons. With betting, spot-fixing and instances of corrupt cricketers been seduced into the betting game, the ICC keeps a weather eye on communications and, as far as I know, bans the use of mobile phones by players during matches. Again, in certain lands armed guards oversee the cricketers’ environment — with the attack on the Sri Lankan team and its official entourage in Lahore serving as the principal reason for this increase of concern.
I discovered the bureaucratic lengths to which the ICC and its local agencies proceed in this regard when the Test Match between Australia and India was played in Adelaide recently. Kumar Dharmasena was umpiring and when I was at the match one day I went to the front-desk at the office of the South Australian Cricket Association (SACA) to ascertain which hotel he was staying in because Kumar is an acquaintance and I thought it would be good to indulge in some hospitality. The front desk was not permitted to divulge such information and gave me a number for a liaison officer to pursue further inquiries. That officer never answered his phone, so I gave up. Sachchitra Senanayake being escorted to pavilion
When the Sri Lankan team arrived in Adelaide recently for their single ODI match, I had used Melbourne Lankan sources to ascertain that they were staying at the Stamford Hotel on North Terrace, thereby circumventing Screen One. When I popped into the hotel and asked the receptionist whether the team was staying there, guess what the answer was: “I am not free to stay “YES’ or “NO.”!!!! One did not need to be a rocket scientist to decide that they were indeed residing there. In any event, after consulting someone higher up this receptionist accepted three notes I left for two players and a member of the support staff.
The latter had the courtesy to contact me on the phone and I indicated that I was interested in chatting to him about his own career in SL cricket in the past and in the coaching structure in Lanka. While quite amenable, he indicated that the whole squad had been told that they should not give interviews to the press or anyone else. So, I phoned and emailed a SLC official in Lanka whom I know quite well.
Apologetically he informed me that the Board’s “new media policy specifically says that the players can only talk at pre-match and post-match interviews;” and this was part of their contracts. Clearly, one can conclude that the strict restrictions have been initiated recently because (A) Sri Lanka Cricket has been subject to severe strictures from all quarters in recent weeks; and (B) because they discovered that some players had been guilty of indiscreet talk inimical to the island’s cricketing interests. I note here that the ban is not total. Sangakkara’s recent cricinfo comments[i] seem to fall within the restricted window of “pre-match and post-match” interviews.
Sri Lanka Cricket has reason for caution. There are several cricketer politicians in the cricketing wilderness in Lanka who are gunning for the present administration. Stirred by the team’s poor performances in the recent past, fervent fans are looking for scapegoats. Journalists always seek sensational material for marketable news items. Cricketing commentators abroad latch unto seamy information and blow in the wind on the basis of partial knowledge.
That granted, the fact remains that there are numerous areas of inquiry that concern the public including those reasonably well-disposed towards the Lankan cricketing interests: (a) the changes in cricket administration via a so-called election; (b) the new Selection Committee and its composition; (c) the dumping of Geoff Marsh and Anura Tennekoon before the end of their contracts; (d) the removal of Dilshan and choice of Jayewardene as captain for the Australian tour; (e) the fifteen men chosen; (g) the financial foundations of SLC at the moment and its prospects for 2012-13; (h) the recent decision to jettison the Provincial Tournament and issues arising therefrom; and (i) plans for decent exposure for Sri Lanka’s A team in the months and years to come.
As it happens I had only a passing interest in some of these vital issues and had as much interest in such arcane topics as the individual cricketing biographies of some of the guys I would have liked to chat up, including the history of Engeltina Cottage (ancestral home now) when it came to Kumar Sangakkara. Though frustrated by the blanket ban, I understand that exceptions cannot be granted.
However, it is not advisable for Sri Lanka Cricket to be at loggerheads with media networks and for this reason they should address the following questions: (A) whether it is not advisable to permit a greater range of media interaction for the players and team management through judicious sessions devoted to specified topics; and (B) whether they should not be more pro-active on the PR front by issuing press releases that clarify some of the activities and policies that they have been engaged in.
A Tangent: Mechanical Method in the Mechanics of Protection: This excursion on “security” encourages me to comment on the mechanical and perfunctory character of “police protection” for cricketers at sporting events. This dimension of security is a generalised issue and applies to the arrangements at mass functions in general so that my commentary is guided by experiences in Australia at international rugger matches as well.
The personnel who examine bags carried by spectators in Australia are unarmed. Apart from slowing down the spectator flow, the examination of the bags is so perfunctory that one wonders why such a practice is pursued. It could be that the main intent is to prevent Aussies carrying cans of beer into the ground — thereby aiding the catering establishments. But the larger issue remains: can this façade of security constrain either teams of terrorists or individual cranks with evil intent?
The answer must be a resounding NO. The ICC must face up to the fact that there is very little that such arrangements can do to deter a well-trained armed group who have decided to attack some team. It is the job of homeland security and its intelligence networks in each country to twig the attacks beforehand – a difficult job calling for luck as well as competence.
Individual freaks who decide to target some sporting event or a particular team are not likely to be fall within the radar of homeland security outfits, so it is presumably with the intent of discovering dangerous weapons that spectator bags are subject to examination by a bevy of security personnel at sporting events.
But what exactly is a dangerous weapon? When I was part of the crowd seeking entry to Sooriyawewa stadium in a crushing and crushed mass in February 2011, a policeman manning the entry point tried to confiscate my ballpoint pen. It took some persuasion to convince him that he should not insist upon this act of ‘castration’. This irritation to my sensibilities was not his fault. He was just pursuing the mindless directions from the IGP of the time
These directions in their turn were the product of the SL government and SL Cricket’s desire to show the ICC and the world that they could not only run the World Cup events, but also provide adequate protection. My contention here is that this policy not only generated some idiotic and/or perfunctory details, but led to an elaborate and highly expensive screen of security that was more façade than screen. In brief I claim that the security arrangements in 2011 were over the top and included some waste of expenditure.
From my observations at the three World Cup stadiums in Lanka I would say that even with no first-hand experience in commando operations that I could have devised ways of harming the cricketers if I wanted to and if I had the requisite skills to do so. This contention is presented within a larger claim that security forces anywhere would find it difficult to prevent a sporting catastrophe if a determined assault team has decided to target such an arena. If the assault team included the low-cost precision weapon called a suicide bomber, such a goal would be impossible.
The World Cup in Lanka was a huge affair and besides the army, there was a private security company and policemen detailed to provide protection. When one has three arms of protection there will always be cracks between the arms for trained teams to exploit. This possibility was enhanced in circumstances where there were armies of caterers, cleaners, guides, etcetera working at each stadium in order to get each “show,” that is, each match, away and running. It would be via infiltration of working groups that any intelligent terrorist force would penetrate such arenas.
As for individual cranks: assuming a modicum of intelligence there are numerous moments where one can get within reach of cricketers. Cricketers have practice sessions and are vulnerable then as well as off-field in hotel or town. During the World Cup I was within ten feet of several Pakistani cricketers at the pavilion in Sooriyawewa as they got ready for practice.
However, what amused me most was the veneer of a security dragnet mounted for the ICC by the Sri Lankan authorities. As I travelled by van from Sooriyawewa to Hambantota town one non-match day, a hour-long journey I saw one policeman standing on the road at every 1000 metres or so. They did not have guns. More to the point they had no walkie-talkies. If there had been some outrage, say, in Hambantota and a body of armed attackers were fleeing in some vehicle these roadside policemen would be blissfully unaware of the fact. Post-outrage counter action requires good communication and mobile teams, not veneers of presence.
[i] Mongia, “Sangakkara says India vulnerable overseas,” http://www.espncricinfo.com/commonwealth-bank-series-2012/content/story/553087.html.