Lahore terror attack ends sporting immunity

TED CORBETT had reason to believe that sport, and sports journalists, would not be targeted by terrorists. After this week’s events in Pakistan, he fears that may have changed

Forty years ago, I was assured by a terrorist that it would be counter-productive for them to attack a sportsman. Until this week, I believed him.

Now I am smug about having retired, glad I do not have to make a choice about travelling to a country rent asunder by war, worried that my friends and acquaintances within cricket are under threat.

But since 1970 I have always believed what that Irish terrorist told me. “Don’t worry, Mr Corbett. You will be safe. We would not risk hurting a sportsman or a sports writer. The backlash from fans who love the stars of the sports world would be too great.”

Here is how it all happened.

I was the young lad on the sports desk of the Daily Mirror, then the greatest newspaper in the world, with a circulation hovering about five million copies a day.

One morning I arrived at the office to be told that our man in Belfast had died suddenly and that I had been chosen to cover football in that city until a permanent replacement could be found.

There had been threats to newspapermen in the city, two had been kidnapped when they wandered into forbidden territory and the hotel they all used had been blown up a number of times.

The Troubles were at their height with sectarian murders, explosions and gun battles a daily happening.

I took no notice that morning. Young, headstrong and foolish I leapt at the chance. After all I had just worked in Scotland for two years, I understood the religious split between Protestants and Catholics, I had reported international football – George Best in prime form – and it would be another step up the ladder.

I left the sports editor’s office full of joy, sure my family would understand this brief posting, glad to have a proper job instead of sitting round the office waiting for one of the big name writers to give way to me.

As I got back to my desk, my phone rang.

“Mr Corbett, this is a message from the IRA. Let me assure you, Mr Corbett, you will come to no harm if you work in Belfast.”

I was staggered. After all I had known for no more than three minutes. The Irish Republican Army had already acquired a dreadful reputation for murdering their enemies.

“But you don’t exactly have a kindly reputation,” I stammered.

“No, Mr Corbett. But we would never hurt anyone connected with sport. Come here, act like a sports writer, make sure you give Northern Ireland a good name and we will make sure you come to no harm. We would never harm someone in the sports world. It would be counter productive because the people we want to impress love their sports stars and want to read about them. You will be safe here.”

There was one of those ominous clicks you read about in crime novels and the line went dead. I admit that by that time I was shaking.

Of course I told the sports editor immediately. He told the editor who saw the phone call as a trap and decided that full coverage of Irish sport could wait until a new man was appointed.

Later it turned out that the IRA had sleepers working inside the Mirror office, that they seemed to know what was happening there before we did and that they could be ruthless when they fell out, for instance, with news reporters.

So for the last 40 years I have dined out on the story, felt safe wherever I travelled across the globe to report football, rugby, snooker and, for the last 25 years, cricket. I never thought I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear that friends of mine had been ambushed in the centre of Lahore, a city I have visited many times in a country I love.

Since 9/11, the world has changed. I have to put aside all the resentment I have felt about security at every Test match venue, admit that those photo-ID cards are a necessary passport to security and concede that if I was still reporting cricket I would have to watch my step.

The voice of Chris Broad, the match referee in Lahore, full of emotion (pictured right), hit me hard. I have known Chris since he opened the innings for England; I once lent him my tape recorder so that he could send his son a Christmas message.

That son is now England’s man strike bowler Stuart, whose career will be punctuated not by the sort of carefree days his father and I knew. Instead he will have to be watchful, to remember that every journey may mean an encounter with danger; and that the greater rewards that come with modern cricket are accompanied by greater peril.

Stuart declined to join the avenue to riches that is found in the Indian Premier League. I bet he is very pleased with that decision now.

Read Ted Corbett on last year’s Mumbai attacks

More sports journalism links

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form