Excess baggage in security for World Cup cricket

Michael Roberts, 23 February 2011

In conjecture I would say that the dangers of attacks on the cricket teams in the three Asian countries staging the World Cup are minimal. However, in the context of the assault at Lahore on 3 March 2009 and the generalized assault on high-profile targets at Mumbai by Pakistani extremists, it is quite understandable that strong security cordons surround the teams and cricket venues. My questions here are directed at the specifics of the arrangements in Sri Lanka as witnessed around Sooriyawewa and Hambantota; and my experiential evidence of holes in the cordon.

 Police screening — Pic courtesy of the Sunday Times


 Scene at Sooriyawewa three hours before match Between Pakistan & Kenya – with “catchers” and 3 guards around -Pic by Roberts

   Several days back Mahinda Balasuriya, the IGP, with Lawrence Fernando, Sri Lanka Cricket’s head of security, in attendance, held a media briefing at which he thanked Gothabaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary, for the assistance provided to the police in seeing to the safety of the ICC officials and teams. He then went on to stipulate that the public would not be permitted to bring a whole range of items into the grounds: namely, “banners,  placards, crackers, laser lights, professional video cameras, laser points, firearms, knives, sharp objects, smoke bombs, flag poles, firecrackers, mirrors, drink cans, glass bottles, liquor and sharp instruments.” These items were not only listed, but illustrated pictorially in the Sunday Observer of the 20th February 2011.This directive effectively excluded the papare bands that have been as integral to Lankan cricket culture as samba drums are to Brazilian soccer. I was therefore in whole hearted agreement with Hilal Suhaib’s http://www.islandcricket.com effort to generate a petition against this practice. Though I was not optimistic about the outcome, in fact Sri Lanka Cricket have responded promptly to this decision and by 23rd March secured a revision that enables fans to bring musical instruments into the cricketing venues (Daily Mirror, 23 Feb. 2011).  So congratulations should be extended to SLC and other behind-the-scenes forces for this sensible intervention.

     While it is possible that the attempt by the Police to implement this particular rule was informed by what is known in the West as “noise pollution,” the use of electronic music between overs at Sooriyawewa and the presence of two drumming groups in flashy outfits on the midwicket boundaries suggest that this constraint on public participation in music-making was guided by (a) generalized ICC security precautions; and (b) financial commitments towards those given music-making rights (“noise rights”).

    That security considerations are paramount is suggested by the fact that I, as an ordinary Silva, was nearly divested of my pens when I rolled up at the gates amidst a crush of bodies. Presumably pens are deemed “sharp instruments.” The searching of bags is an experience I have faced at Australian cricket and rugger grounds. They have always seemed perfunctory and hardly likely to deter well-equipped terrorists. In Australia, however, they do enable the authorities to prevent fans from bringing in beer cans (potential weapons), thereby assisting the booze caterers in the grounds. That consideration is not a serious one in Asia because of the price of beer cans. Moreover, at the popular cricket matches the number of fans at any one entrance is huge. This renders the search-and-confiscate work of the security personnel extremely problematic.

    As I attempted to enter the Sooriywewa grounds to watch the Sri Lanka-Canada match this problem was exacerbated when the policemen tried to confiscate my pens. Given my occupation this was rather like a castration! My persuasiveness means that I remained virile during the course of that particular match. But this was surely a ridiculous rule! Yes, a bloke or a lady with commando skills can incapacitate someone with the point of a pen. But some umbrellas will also work as effectively. So will a full Coke or Sprite bottle (items on sale inside the Grandstand) as hammer, or a broken bottle as bayonet. Indeed, trained commandoes and terrorists need only their bare hands and booted feet.

   In brief, some measure of common sense must organize the efforts to protect the players. So the focus should perhaps be directed towards preventing members of the public from getting close to the players. But this too is an impossible task. By pure chance I had tickets to a ground floor section below the Sri Lankan team’s viewing section. If I had successfully smuggled in a grenade, the task of atrocity would have been simple. In effect, I am saying that it is impossible to prevent public proximity to the players as they enter the playing field to pursue their trade.

    Again, the “public” is as varied as many. One does not have a university degree to divine that a wide diversity of tasks has to be pursued in order to bring a mega-cricket-event into fruition: caterers, cleaners, media, ICC and local officials of various ranks and, last but not least, the modern version of that Sri Lankan institution known as “peons.” Thus, one finds many and numerous – usually far more than required – personnel in the vicinity of higher-echelon officials of various categories at any such event in Sri Lanka. In indigenous twist we call them “catchers.”

    This diversity was noticeable within the Grandstand area of Sooriyawewa during the first match. If I was part of an organized group intent on harming some cricket team or making an explosive statement at a mega-event, it would be through infiltration of one of these service outfits.

    As it happens, I did not require even this form of organizational planning or evil intent to get close to the Pakistani cricket team as they were preparing for practice at Sooriyawewa on the 21st January. I had dropped in at the media centre to meet a Pakistani journalist; and then went to the Grandstand to see how I could buy a ticket for the next match. Entering the building I was within spitting distance of two Pakistani players at two different moments before an official accosted me. It was not because I looked distinguished – grey hair and all that – that I got so close. There was no security cordon to speak of. There also was a sprinkling of catchers outside building and inside the building. In shorts and with binoculars around my neck, I was obviously not a catcher. But the point is that the assortment of personnel makes it difficult for any individual devoted to the protection of cricketers to keep potential danger at more than arm’s length.

Security Overload

Speaking as amateur security analyst, it seems to me that the presence of different categories of security at the grounds renders the efficiency of protective tasks more problematic. I assume that there were police commandoes in close proximity to the team and that there were also ICC-SLC security men in plain clothes. But there also were policemen and blue-uniformed security guards on venue duty. It is the dividing line between these categories that may be conducive to “fault-lines” that an organized body of terrorists or protestors could exploit.

    At a more general level my observations in Hambantota District between matches confirmed that Sri Lanka’s Department of Police is as overstaffed as any other government department. On the non-match day there were clusters of police sitting around the media centre twiddling their thumbs. This is excusable. They will be required for work on match days so they must have some duty roster on other days too.

    What was more questionable was the policy adopted of placing a single unarmed policeman along the roads from Sooriyawewa to Hambantota and Tissamaharama at every mile or so. Since traffic and populace were not heavy, these men were visible, though sometimes their khaki blended into the shade cast by trees. These stretches of road embraced the routes that would be taken by the Kenyan and Pakistani teams so one assumes that this was a protective device and an explicit presentation of self as devoted to such a task.

    However, as amateur security analyst I asked myself: “what sort of security do such isolated ‘outriders’ without gun and radios provide?” If some atrocity had been committed in, say, the outskirts of Tissamaharama at 10.15 a. m. how would these single policemen on the Sooriyawewa stretch know that a van bearing the civilian assailants that passed them at 10.40 am was the chosen mode of the assailants? The essence of security is good communication and mobility. Squads on a single radio frequency equipped with motor-bikes and speedy vehicles are the best modality of chase and pursuit – after an attack.

   So, one must conclude that the placement of all these surplus policemen along the routes traversed by the cricket team was mere “public face” – telling the ICC, the cricketers and the world that “We Sri Lankans are looking after the teams.” My remarks now indicate that this is façade.

   The Kenyan coach did pass my hire-van as I headed for Tissamaharama and Yala. There were two motorcycle cops up front clearing the path of vehicles by waving them to halt. There was a police car behind them and the coach was backed up by another blue police coach which presumably carried police commandos. The commandoes would have to disembark to fire their weaponry so it was hardly optimal security; but I presume that would be adequate to deter most terrorist outfits. If I was part of a trained terrorist group, however, my RPGS would eliminate this coach first whenever the convoy paused at some junction or contrived halt and presented an immobile target.

    The teams visiting Sri Lanka may nevertheless feel comforted by the security grandstanding around them. The greater comfort should emanate from the unlikelihood of any competent body of dissidents in the island wanting to use cricket as a field of violent protest. Such action would be counter-productive for most terrorist or protest goals. It required special circumstances and some arcane and still obscure reasoning for some Islamic militants to harm Pakistani cricket by attacking the Sri Lankan cricketing entourage in such outrageous fashion on 3rd March 2009. It still remains a mystery why they did not hurl a salvo of RPGs at the Sri Lankan coach as distinct from one shot that missed; and why they did not move in and finish off – kill that is – the umpiring officials in the min-van and its dead driver that lay stranded like a beached whale at Liberty Square for about 7 minutes (see Roberts, “Cricket under siege,” in Intrusions and excursions in and around Sri Lankan cricket, Colombo, 2011, distributed by Vijtiha Yapa Publications and available by 5-10 March).

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