Lahore : It is straight out of a John Le Carre spy novel and can be told now that the Indian cricket team is back home safely after a 39-day watershed tour of Pakistan.
Never before has any cricket team played anywhere under the shadow of the gun as Sourav Ganguly and his warriors did in places like Karachi and Peshawar.
Safe-houses were identified to shelter the cricketers in the event of danger to their lives, helicopters were on standby for evacuation, flights were delayed on purpose, dummy convoys moved on the roads and elite commandos stood guard round the clock.
Unknown to the players, during the One-day international at Lahore, credible intelligence was received about a possible threat at the hotel where they stayed. The hotel was sealed for a while, an intense security check carried out and extra commandos were deployed to thwart any mischief.
That the tour went off without any incident is a tribute to the skills of Pakistani security establishment and its Indian counterpart who coordinated an unprecedented security operation during the series, the significance of which went far beyond the playing fields.
"It was a security nightmare. Much was riding on this tour and even a small incident could have had huge political and other effects. But once the go-ahead for the tour was given, security arrangements had to be put in place. It was like protecting 15 Heads of Government," said a Pakistani official involved in the task.
At some of the venues, particularly Karachi and Peshawar, safe-houses had been identified in case the Indian team required to be evacuated from a stadium. Helicopters were on standby to pick up the Indians if trouble erupted but "fortunately trouble did not erupt," says Yashowardhan Azad, Inspector General of Police, who had been deputed by the Indian Home Ministry to this country to ensure fool-proof security for the team.
Azad travelled to Pakistan well ahead of the arrival of Ganguly and his boys on March 10 and visited all the venues along with his Pakistani counterparts led by Sohail Khan of the Federal Investigating Agency (FIA) who had been appointed national security coordinator for the tour.
Karachi and Peshawar topped the list of potential trouble spots as far as the Indian officials were concerned and therefore they ruled out any Test matches. Only One-dayers were played there to reduce the period of stay for the team.
15 million people, 18 towns and 18 police districts make Karachi Pakistan's biggest city. Besides being home to India's underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, this teeming metropolis is also regarded as the country's drug capital. The radical Lashkar-e-Jaanvi group also posed a potential threat here.
Therefore, Azad and his Pakistani counterparts identified safe-houses, had one helicopter hovering near the Karachi Stadium while India and Pakistan played the first One-dayer on March 13. Another helicopter was on standby. The Indian team was whisked to the airport immediately after the match and flown to Islamabad.
But the flight out of Karachi was purposely delayed to thwart any potential mischief. Three identical buses were lined up for the Indian team to drive to the airport under heavy police escort. All traffic on the roads traversed by the team was stopped and high-rise buildings monitored.
Two different routes were prepared for the team's movement in Karachi and decisions on the road to be taken were made at the last minute to reduce the risk. Dummy buses with proper police escorts were sent on the routes 45 minutes ahead of the team's actual travel.
Similar security arrangements were in place at Peshawar where teams from South Africa and New Zealand had refused to play. Peshawar is the capital of volatile North West Frontier Province and the city's police boss Rafat Pasha took personal charge of the team's security.
The hotels where the Indian team stayed were put under security befitting heads of government. Sniffer dogs went round the hotels particularly the rooms where the Indian players stayed. All food supplied to the Indian team was prepared under supervision and checked.
X-ray scanners were installed at the hotels and special checks introduced to guard against car bomb attacks. Police spotters were placed on all the routes taken by the Indian team.
Last-minute changes were made in the team's travel plans. For instance, it was first decided that the team would travel by air from Islamabad to Peshawar, but this was changed to road travel. Yet, the team finally flew to Peshawar. In Lahore, the route of the team's motorcade was altered suddenly.
Special squads of commandos were deployed at the team hotels and the playing arenas everywhere. The floor, where the Indian team stayed, was made out of bounds for everyone except those who had security clearance.
The cooperation of the Pakistani security agencies is handsomely acknowledged by Azad who said that both sides had cooperated with each other very smoothly.
If security weighed on the minds of the Indian players, they did not show it. Vice-captain Rahul Dravid found it safe to travel to Taxila, the archaeological site near Islamabad and also visited the famous Anarkali bazaar in Lahore.
Ganguly was relaxed enough to go to the food market in Lahore, Sachin Tendulkar visited a music store in Islamabad and Virender Sehwag purchased Pakistani dresses, all with securitymen in tow.
In the end the Indians took the security concerns in their stride and performed brilliantly on the field. But even they did not know the full extent of the unprecedented security steps that had been taken for them.
No wonder, Sohail Khan thanked Allah when the Indian team left for home yesterday.
Pak team likely to undertake reciprocal tour