Tamim Iqbal’s eyes were moist. In fact, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Bangladesh dressing room. They had just had a close shave from the terrorist attack at a Christchurch mosque and had taken shelter in the Hagley Oval dressing room when television streamed out footage from moments ago. One of the visuals showed a place just inside the mosque, not far from the entrance, where the attacker had started his bloodshed. Just a week ago, Tamim had stood at the same spot and prayed as the mosque was overflowing with people and there was not much space inside. The terror they had narrowly escaped hit home at that moment.
Standing with Tamim then was Indian video analyst Shrinivas Chandrasekharan, who had joined the team last January after stints with two teams in the Bangladesh Premier League and Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL.
Even in the panic and chaos, Shrinivas would do something that has warmed him to the team even further. Once it was finally decided by the team to exit the bus that was parked in front of the mosque, one player Khaled Ahmed was in some strife. He had his long Salwar-Kurta on (the attire is known as ‘Panjabi’ in Bangla) when Shrinivas took off his jacket and asked Khaled to wear it. “I was fine, I was in a T-shirt, the fear was what if the shooter came out or something and saw Khaled in the Panjabi. I thought it was better if he was in a jacket,” Shrinivas says.
It was Tamim’s loud voice filled with alarm that Shrinivas remembers from that hellish bus ride to the mosque. “Get down, everyone, lie down on the floor,” Tamim, who was seated at the front of the bus, had shouted out that fateful afternoon in Christchurch. And they all dived down. “Tamim and Riyad (Mahmudullah) were at the front and saw what’s happening.”
Just moments earlier, Shrinivas, who usually sits on the window seat right at the back of the bus, had caught his first glimpse of trouble. He spotted a lady walking before she suddenly collapsed to the ground. “I thought she had fainted. We immediately stopped the bus to help her out. I saw a boy, who was with her, lifting her when I saw blood pouring out. It was then that I realised there is something going on. Then soon, Tamim was shouting at us to get down.”
Two nights after the attack, Shrinivas is yet to sleep properly. He would reach India, to his family in Mumbai, on Sunday night only. None of the Bangladesh players have had a decent nap. The night of the attack, they were huddled in the captain’s room till 4 to 5 am, unable to go to their individual rooms. “What if we are alone, and the mind just keeps throwing up stuff about terror. We felt it would be better if we stayed together as a group,” Shrinivas says.
From where the bus stopped, they could see the lane at the back of the mosque. “Around 50 to 60 people were running wild. There was fear everywhere.” Nearer to the bus, some people told the players to stay put in the bus and informed them about the shooter. Around that time, Tamim had called out and the players hit the floor. Frantic telephone calls were made but not everyone would believe that such bloodshed could unfold in New Zealand. Even as he was lying down, Tamim called Mohammad Isam, a journalist with Cricinfo who had seen the players drive off to the mosque, but Isam thought he was joking. Tamim had to call him again and tell him, “hear the noise” and it was then that the real import hit everyone at the ground as well.
Someone suggested, Shrinivas recalls, that the players should get down from the back door of the bus and run away. It was vetoed as “we weren’t sure how many attackers were there. What if there was one outside and we run straight into him?” The bus couldn’t move as there were cars parked in front and back, and so it was decided that everyone should stay in the bus itself.
It was a fortuitous delay in holding a press conference that perhaps saved the players that day. Shrinivas recalls that the team was getting ready to leave 10 minutes earlier but were told that Mahmudullah’s scheduled press conference was delayed by 10 minutes.
“So, we played football inside the dressing room and waited for him to come. Thank god, there were enough questions asked in the press conference too!”
“I can’t even recall the details now about what we’re doing except the feeling of fear and panic,” Shrinivas says. “I remember Tamim and Musfiqur Rahim shouting ‘don’t run, don’t run, stay inside’. Or something like that. There were lot of young players in the team …”
Eighteen of them had gone to that mosque that afternoon. The plan was that two of them, Shrinivas and Soumya Sarkar, would drop the players outside the mosque and get a cab to the team hotel. “In fact, when I boarded that bus in a T-shirts and shorts, a journalist had told me that I can’t go into the mosque in shorts and I replied, ‘I would only go if someone had a spare track pants or most probably, I would get back to the hotel with Soumya.’ So I think 16 from the team would have gone in.”
It was a sort of a pattern with the team. A week before in Wellington, on a Friday, it was the same. Shrinivas and Soumya Sarkar, the two Hindus, dropped the players at the mosque, waited outside for them to finish and get back together.
Once the police, who had cordoned off the area, told them that they can disembark and walk out from the back of the bus, the players got down. Mushfiqur and Tamim once again reminded them not to run but just walk out.
“I was with Tamim and the team masseur, I remember — the whole team was around us for that matter, when we saw lot more people at Hagley Park (the big park lies between the mosque and the stadium), who were walking for prayers at the mosque. We told them about the incident and asked them to go back.”
Once in the dressing room, they were joined by the likes of Sunil Joshi, the spin bowling coach, and other Bangladesh board officials. Tears flowed and Joshi and the officials did their best to calm everyone down. They would stay there for one-and-a-half hours there.
“It was then at some point we were told that the tour had been cancelled and we would be going back soon,” Shrinivas says. They then retired to the team hotel and it was decided that the players would stay in a room. Together. Television news kept playing in the background and the players were on the phone with family members back in Bangladesh.
Sometime in the evening, Shrinivas’s phone would buzz. It was a text from Kane Williamson. “If you need any help, please let us know. If we can do anything. We are sorry that this incident has happened to you guys in New Zealand.” A shocked Shrinivas is still grateful.
“Imagine, he had texted even me. All the New Zealand players and officials and people were really helpful.” Ross Taylor had spoken to Mushfiqur Rahim and Tamim. So had Shahid Afridi from Pakistan who had reached out to Tamim. ‘I think the players got calls and messages from players around the world.”
Night fell but sleep wouldn’t come. “I definitely didn’t want to go to the room. I would see the image of that lady in blood,” he says. Others too had their own demons to fight. Eventually, utterly knackered, some sleep would come by 5 am and after two to three hours, they were ready to leave for the airport. New Zealand officials and the airlines would help in rescheduling the flights and help them leave the country. Shrinivas remembers a farewell party had gathered at the hotel to send them off.
“Even at the airport, the New Zealand people were so kind and helpful.”
When Shrinivas boarded the bus, he couldn’t bring himself to sit at his normal spot at the window seat at the back of the bus. “I told the players I can’t sit there. I would sit somewhere in the middle.”