The Black Caps, the suicide bomb and the hard decision they had to make

by Justin Gregory / 13 September, 2017

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Armed police patrol streets in Colombo after a number of attacks on the Sri Lankan capital by Tamil Tiger fighters. 1995 file photo / Getty Images

In 1992 the Black Caps cricket team dodged a suicide bomber but got caught up in a web of civil war, contract disputes and fights between players and management. Justin Gregory reports for RNZ's Eyewitness.

The Bomb

8am, November 15, 1992. The New Zealand men’s cricket team – the Black Caps - are waking up in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They’ve been in the country less than a day and are looking forward to some practice and working out the kinks after a long flight.

Ahead of them is a month of Test matches and One Day Internationals against their hosts. They’re tired, a bit stiff, but cheerful and ready for a good competition.

In his hotel room, batsman Ken Rutherford’s breakfast has just arrived.

“And I just plonked it on top of my bed and then - Boom! The tray ended up on the floor and gee whiz, what’s this?"

It was a bomb, exploding directly outside the team’s hotel. The entire building shakes for several seconds afterwards.

Shocked players stumble into the corridor to check on each other and find out what’s happened. No one’s hurt but they want to know what’s going on.

Details trickle in. A Tamil Tiger suicide bomber on a motorbike has rammed a car containing Sri Lankan navy commander Clancy Fernando. Four people, including the bomber, are dead. Later that morning, Rutherford goes down to the site of the explosion to get the lie of the land. What he sees shocks him.

“Big hole in the ground, horrible, human parts around the fence and gate area. A real sobering scene for us Kiwis” - Ken Rutherford.

Captain Martin Crowe asks Ken how it looks outside.

“Not too good”.

He knows what he’s talking about. This isn’t the first time a bomb has exploded near the Black Caps or even the first time it’s happened to Rutherford.

History never repeats?

Sri Lanka was four years into a vicious civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (commonly known as the Tamil Tigers) when the New Zealand team toured there in 1987. Immediately after the first Test ended, the Tamil Tigers exploded a huge bomb at a bus station just 400 metres from the team hotel, destroying it and killing nearly 200 people. The station was on the team’s bus route home. They had missed the bomb by just a few minutes.

That day the team took a vote whether to carry on or pull out. The result was clear and everyone flew out soon after.

Five years later and with several players from the 1987 tour still in the squad, the same cricket team faced the same choice.

At first, as in 1987, almost everyone wants to go home and as soon as possible. But as nerves settle over the day, some think again.

And some don’t. Mark Greatbatch, Dipak Patel, Gavin Larsen, Willie Watson, Rod Latham and coach Warren Lees have made up their minds. They want out of Sri Lanka.

At first Rutherford agrees and wants to go home to his family in Dunedin. But a safety briefing that afternoon makes him reconsider. The team wasn’t the target of the bomb; the civil war is in a different phase and for Ken, the situation just feels different to 1987. He’s on the fence, so he rings home for advice.

“My wife, she’s my ex-wife now, she actually suggested I stay there! So that’s how much she thought of me…”

When they vote this time, it’s a deadlock at nine-all. With less than a full team of players willing to stay, the tour can’t continue and the NZ Cricket Board is informed. Everyone goes back to their rooms thinking it’s all over. Actually, it’s just starting.

16 November, the day after the bomb. Word spreads that board chairman Peter McDermott is flying to Colombo to talk to the team and to try to save the tour.

The Chairman

More than two decades have passed since 1992 and when I interview him for this story, Peter McDermott can't recall for me when he was first informed about the bombing.  He frequently apologises for not being able to remember exactly what happened 25 years ago. Ken Rutherford was the same.

“We were assured straight away that there was no one hurt or in danger” - Peter McDermott.

What McDermott does remember was that job one was to contact the team and make sure everyone was OK.

For the next 24 hours, phone calls fly between board members and the National Government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Peter is uncertain of the order in which it all happened but he’s very clear that neither Foreign Affairs nor the Beehive put pressure on him to save the tour for political reasons.

“They said ‘look, here’s all the facts and figures but it’s your decision.’”

Some of those facts were indisputable. In Colombo at that time was a New Zealand dairy delegation attending a major trade expo. They had decided it was safe to stay where they were. Earlier that year, the Australian men’s cricket team had played a series in Sri Lanka without incident.

McDermott says captain Martin Crowe and senior player Andrew Jones told him over the phone that they thought it was safe for them to stay. Tour manager Leif Dearsley agreed.

Other reasons to stay were based on intelligence gathering and experience. High commissioners from Britain and Australia stationed in Sri Lanka briefed both the players and McDermott on the situation. They assured them that the team were just as safe in Colombo as they were in any major city.

McDermott spoke to Sri Lankan security officials who were certain the players were safe. He also heard from Colin Cowdrey, the chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC), but insists there was no pressure from the boss of world cricket to continue the tour.

“Obviously there was pressure from within Sri Lanka but that wasn’t a hell of an influence” - Peter McDermott.

“There was certainly a wish (from the ICC) that the tour proceed.

Then there’s the question of money. If the tour was abandoned, it was likely that NZ Cricket would lose their fee. In his book, A Hell of a Way to Make a Living, written three years after the bomb, Ken Rutherford suggested that the board might even be asked to compensate the Sri Lankans for loss of revenue.

Other factors were more nebulous. This would be the second time in a row that the Black Caps had abandoned a tour to Sri Lanka who had only been a Test-playing nation since 1981. If the Kiwis went home, it could mean teams set to tour there in the future would think twice and as a result, the development of cricket in the country would be set back. Tourism would suffer and an offended Sri Lanka might not be so willing to trade with New Zealand.

The Board weighed it all up and agreed that the tour should continue if possible. Peter McDermott booked a flight to Colombo.

“My thought was to go over there and sort out who wanted to stay and who wanted to go and if they all said they wanted to come home then there wouldn’t have been a tour.

“There was no way that we were going to force people to stay” - Peter McDermott.

The Showdown

Colombo, 17 November, 1992. McDermott addresses the entire tour party. Ken Rutherford would later describe the chairman during this speech as “emphatic” that the tour should continue.

Before leaving for Sri Lanka, McDermott had told RNZ’s Morning Report that he “would have thought the intention would be to try and salvage (the tour) if possible” and described the ramifications of coming home as “substantial.”

While speaking to the team, the chairman gets the sense there are “one or two people that (are) feeling a bit pressured” to go home so he vetoes the suggestion that another vote be held with him present. Instead, he’ll speak to each player individually.

By now some of the players who voted to go home are wavering. McDermott identifies all-rounder Chris Harris and Ken Rutherford among this group as being key to the tour carrying on - and he has leverage to apply.

Team captain Martin Crowe was sure it was safe for the team to stay. Photo / Getty Images

Professional Sport?

1992 was a tricky time to make your living from cricket. Only Andrew Jones and Martin Crowe had full time contracts with the board. Everyone else was paid only when playing.

NZ Cricket itself was in a semi-amateurish state with 13 board members but only three or four full time employees running the national team. The 1995 Hood Report, commissioned by this board, would recommend dismantling the entire structure and starting again. The report was accepted and implemented.

But that's later on. There are stories from this period and before of players not getting their tour contracts before flying out or being handed them at the airport. Ken Rutherford remembers being made to sign agreements that he only ever saw the back page of.

There had been a pay dispute between the players and the Board before the tour and it’s possible that some bad feeling remained. After all, pride in playing for your country can only carry you so far. 

McDermott asks Rutherford what it would take for him to stay. Easy, says Ken - a contract. Done, says the chairman. Ken Rutherford is now committed to staying in Sri Lanka.

Keep in mind that cricket is Rutherford’s job. If he doesn’t play then he doesn’t get paid. He has kids and he agrees to stay for the same reason he’d wanted to leave - family.

McDermott is amused that Rutherford uses the situation to get himself a contract (“That’s Ken!”) but Rutherford knows some of the team will take his change of mind badly.

“There are two or three guys who I’m sure to this day hold a bit of a grudge against me” - Ken Rutherford.

At this point, the story gets blurry. In the 25 years since the bombing, books have been written, players have fallen out with each other (and also with the board) and inevitably, some versions have evolved into accepted wisdom.

While Rutherford felt reasonably well treated, others didn’t. There are disputed stories of players Chris Harris, Mark Haslam and Murphy Su’a being pressured and even threatened to stay on tour, with emotional blackmail being used.

Coach Warren Lees said he was asked to resign immediately. He refused.

Today, Peter McDermott utterly rejects the idea that he leant on anyone to make them stay in Sri Lanka.

“I was told that I was trying to pressure them and threaten them and God knows what. Nonsense. (Supposedly) I told Chris Harris his father would turn over in his grave. I didn’t know Chris Harris’ father!

“Murphy Su’a (who had lived in the United States) said he’d seen worse there (than the bombing). He was very helpful. My recollection of Mark (Haslam) was that he wanted to play cricket.

“I had one guy say I can’t go home ‘cos if I did my father will kill me” - Peter McDermott.

“Another said ‘I’ve rung my mum and dad and they said perhaps now you’ll keep your head down when batting’.

McDermott agrees that he tried to persuade coach Warren Lees to stay and was disappointed when he refused. He did ask Lees to resign, but not as coach.

“I asked him to resign from the tour. I wanted him to sign a document saying he was standing down from the tour and going home. “

McDermott says he wanted everyone who left early to do the same, so that the situation around their departure would be transparent.

“That didn’t happen in the end.”

A Team of Two Halves

Back in 1992 and after meeting with McDermott, five of the players who wanted to leave agree to stay. With replacements flying in from home, the tour is back on.

McDermott stays with the team for another week to see that things are running right. Amazingly, during this time, he gets a phone call from the bombers.

“I was contacted by someone who represented himself as being a member of the Tamil Tigers and he gave me his name and number. He said ‘I just want to assure you that your team are very, very safe. We are all cricket people – I intend to go to the first Test - and if we did anything to your cricket team all our funding would dry up immediately'. He said ‘we don’t attack visitors’.

“I don’t know who he was but it was better than him ringing me up and saying 'your guys are next'” - Peter McDermott.

The team splits in two; those going home wait for their flights in Colombo, those staying go to a beach resort to recover. Ken Rutherford recalls saying goodbye at the hotel as the worst moment of the whole affair.

The tour, though, has changed. Security restrictions mean side trips or even sightseeing is out of the question; playing cricket is all they are allowed to do. Rutherford says he read a lot of books on that tour.

“You went to the ground in the morning, you played your game, you came back at night, you had a shower, and you went downstairs to the house bar, had a meal and you went to bed and that’s what you did for the remaining three weeks of the tour.

“Cricket became very much the primary focus,” he adds drily.

The Fallout

Not that the cricket goes well. The Black Caps win none of their games and Crowe picks up an injury. But there are no more bombs.

In April 1993, Coach Warren Lees’ contract expires and isn’t renewed. A few of the players who went home early struggle to be selected in the coming years although some argue this is justified on form alone. None of the team is offered counselling – that just wasn’t what we did back in 1992 - and as far as Rutherford knows, none of them have ever talked to each other about what they’d been through.

“There was never a time where as a group we got together and said ‘right, whatever happened, Sri Lanka is gone and let’s get back together and get on the same line of thought'.’’

Today, the former chairman accepts that some people see him as a villain. But he’s not one of them. He says it was only after the tour ended that the stories about what happened in Colombo began to change.

“I didn’t read the books. People try to justify their position. They can write whatever they like.” - Peter McDermott.

McDermott says he meant it when he guaranteed there would be no repercussions for anyone who wanted to come home from the tour. But he can’t guarantee that when Warren Lees lost his job that Sri Lanka didn’t play a part in it.

“Can’t say that at all. I don’t know. There was a board meeting and I didn’t vote in it. Unfortunately it was unanimous. If he hadn’t come home, I presume that he may well have still had the role. I heard second hand that he had made some strong public statements about me or the board. He lost a bit of his mana (with them). It was a disappointment to me.

“You‘d be silly to say it wasn’t part of the reason, but it wasn’t something we mooted the moment we got back.”

McDermott also doesn’t buy the argument that players got dropped because they came home early from the tour. He says it was the selectors who picked the team; the board just rubberstamped their choices.

McDermott didn’t then and doesn’t now think he acted unfairly towards anyone in the team. He says he had a duty to sort it out for everyone involved, including those players who wanted to stay in Sri Lanka and continue playing cricket (“They would have been just as angry if we’d had to come home”).

Since the bomb, plenty of questions have been asked for about whether it was right to try and save the tour or whether the board should have put safety first and brought everyone home. In 2002, the Black Caps were touring Pakistan when, almost unbelievably, another bomb exploded outside their hotel. NZ Cricket CEO Martin Snedden brought the team home straight away, telling media that safety came before all other considerations.

Peter McDermott still believes wholeheartedly that it was worth it for the 1992 tour to continue and that the only real risk was to his reputation.

“I know that I made enemies out if it. That’s fine” - Peter McDermott.

He says he has good relations with those players he still knows and holds no grudges against any of the others.

Ken Rutherford says of the whole affair - and of his own decision to stay - that “there is no blueprint, there is no hard and fast rule…

“Gee whizz, there’s no right or wrong is there?”


This article was originally published by RNZ.


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