Sri Lanka opener Danushka Gunathilaka revealed exactly how the decision regarding whether or not to tour Pakistan was taken by the Sri Lankan players, and the role SLC played in the episode. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, the leading run-scorer for the visitors on the tour discussed the thought processes behind his decision - and that of his 15 team-mates - to put their hand up to tour even as many senior players opted to stay away. Over the last fortnight, a 16-man Sri Lankan side was in Pakistan to play three ODIs and three T20Is, but as has become customary with visits by foreign players to Pakistan, the rigmarole surrounding which players would opt out dominated the headlines.
"The board gave us complete freedom," Gunathilaka said during a chat at the team hotel in Lahore. "They just asked us if we wanted to be here. We had a meeting; 25-30 players were there. They just asked in front of everyone, and we had to say yes or no. They didn't put any pressure on us. The board and the (sports) minister did say they believed it was okay to go, and we should trust that advice. But ultimately, they respected the players' decisions.
"The good thing is some players got good opportunities from this series, and they showed what they could do for Sri Lanka and world cricket. Now this team is getting strong because everyone has to fight for their places. For example, [Minod] Bhanuka came into this side and scored a well-made 30 and took a good catch. And then [Bhanuka] Rajapaksa played a good innings. If the big players had come, they might not have got these chances."
A running theme throughout the series, especially in media coverage of the Sri Lankan team in Pakistan, was the obstinate belief that this was a second-string Sri Lankan side. It was reported that ten players had decided against coming to Pakistan - a number Gunathilaka disputed. Nonetheless, the absence of big-name players was used as justification for the lack of interest in tickets - particularly in Karachi where nearly 80% of them went unsold. And for the controversial recall of Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad to the T20I side, with head coach Misbah-ul-Haq saying several people in Pakistan had wanted to see an entire second-string Pakistan team line up against the visitors.
"You can't just play five days, come to the room each evening and go to the ground in the morning for five consecutive days. That's not fair. If you want to start Test cricket in the country, you have to have more freedom"
Very little was known about most of the players who did make the trip after all, and much of the reporting set up shop in the vicinity of condescension, talking up the "bravery" and "generosity" of the visiting Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka's T20I captain Dasun Shanaka and Rajapaksa had both made their feelings clear at being described as second-tier in pointed remarks at press conferences, and Gunathilaka confirmed the determination to show how wide of the mark that framing was gave them an extra little bit of motivation.
"A lot of people in Pakistan said this is our second team. It's not our second team at all, only a few players didn't come. Kusal [Perera] was injured, Angelo [Mathews] was not in the last T20I squad. If you're talking about T20Is, only [Niroshan] Dickwella and [Lasith] Malinga played the last T20 among the players that didn't come. So how can you say this is a B team? You can't ask for more. We beat the No. 1 team in the world. This is our first team."
Gunathilaka is an outgoing individual, sometimes to his detriment, given the scraps he's found himself in over the years. He doesn't like to have dinner in his hotel room, and enjoys going out for the occasional drink on weekends, and a tour to Pakistan necessitates conditions that, at present, decisively preclude any opportunities for such activities. While he remains appreciative of the efforts of the hosts and pays touching tribute to the love for cricket Pakistanis have, he admitted playing Test matches in the country - something the PCB hopes to see happen as early as the end of this year - would be a different challenge altogether.
"The hotel was good, but I didn't go out even once. It's stressful sometimes when you play cricket. You always have pressure, and when you go to the hotel, you can't go out at all. It's not easy to play in Pakistan. But you can see they want other teams to come to this country and play cricket. Maybe next time we can go out, but some players are scared. I think that's fair enough, but hopefully it improves.
"The hospitality is amazing; they looked after us very well and we have to be thankful. I don't think they [PCB] even made any money from these games. We can see how much they spent, with the airports blocked and the army involved and putting so many helicopters in the sky. I don't think they have made money from this series. This is ridiculous for a country like Pakistan. We feel really sad for them. I saw in the last few weeks how hard they've worked. Because of that one incident, no team wants to come to Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, 300 people died recently in a terror attack; what would happen if every team said they didn't want to come to Sri Lanka? It happened in New Zealand too, it can happen anywhere.
"They asked me in the press about a Test series. But from my point of view, you can't just play five days, come to the room each evening and go to the ground in the morning for five consecutive days. That's not fair. If you want to start Test cricket in the country, you have to have more freedom. Players will get stressed going from ground to room and room to ground. That's not possible. It's very hard."
That might be a difficult one to reconcile for Pakistan who, for now, aren't remotely near the stage where they feel they might be able to ease up on security. But on a brighter note, Gunathilaka said the surprising results in the T20I series might in turn convince players who didn't tour this time to make the trip for a future Test series simply for fear of losing their place in the side. This, then, was the trade-off of deciding to stay away from Pakistan; there was no pressure put by the board, but strong performances by players here mean many sitting at home could miss out on upcoming tours, and find their place in the side suddenly under threat.
"I don't think some of the senior players will go to Australia now because of this performance. And so the senior players might be scared for their places, and some of them might come [for a Test series]. At least 12-13 players from this side might go to Australia, that's what the selectors said. Those players that came and did well, they have to give them another chance. If not, it's very unfair. Those who didn't come, as Asantha [de Mel, the selector] was saying, their place is just not sure anymore in the team. After all, these players performed better than the Sri Lanka side did in the New Zealand series."
But all those questions about the future can wait their turn. This series might have been more about the venue than the scorecard, or so we thought a fortnight ago. As it stands, Sri Lanka have walked away with the T20I trophy, whitewashing the No. 1 side in the world with a set of players that, to put it mildly, many in Pakistan did not rate highly. Gunathilaka believes the combination of a hungry, talented team and a glistening opportunity formed a cocktail much too strong for an arguably complacent Pakistan.
"I think we played fearless cricket. We didn't have anything to lose when we got here. Sometimes when we play our full side, Angelo, Malinga, Kusal Mendis, we think we must win this game. We are scared to lose. But I never worry about that too much. People will always say bad things if you lose, and if you win, they'll say good things. It's like that everywhere. If you think about those things, you can't be a cricketer, you can't be an athlete.
"The speciality of this team is no one thought about their future when they played this series. No one was thinking, 'oh, I have to go to Australia, I have to perform this match. If I don't perform I might not get selected'. Players didn't think about that, they just thought about this series. That's what made the difference. They weren't thinking about the World T20. We have eight-nine months; you don't know what will happen. You might get injured, you might fail. But some players think one year ahead, and I don't think like that. Not us."
They are stirring words, carefully considered and weighted; you'd imagine a coach's pep talk in the dressing room might not stray too far from the core of that message. This was, after all, a team shorn of more experienced players who decided not to tour Pakistan, preferring to be cautious than carefree. That has never been Gunathilaka's template, though, and in a unit that shared his audacious outlook, he has found a way to thrive. Pakistan might have thought a fortnight ago these Sri Lankan players were pretty darn brave, but as they wave goodbye to their guests and the T20I trophy they take with them, they'd have to concede they're pretty darn good, too.