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Back to Sharjah, the cradle of rivalry and controversy – cricket

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The plan was to host just one exhibition match, but that unofficial match in the desert would shape the landscape of international cricket for years to come.

This is how it started: The year was 1981 and what would become Sharjah Cricket Stadium was still a bare patch of land, embedded with a concrete field. The exhibition match, which would benefit Pakistani legend Hanif Mohammad and recently retired Asif Iqbal, was to be played on a synthetic surface, with the plan to accommodate approximately 1,000 spectators in temporary scaffolding. Iqbal was tasked with getting the first teams from India and Pakistan on board – called Gavaskar XI and Miandad XI.

Iqbal, a resident of London, flew to Pakistan and convinced Javed Miandad. To do the same with the Indian team – which was touring Australia at the time – Iqbal grabbed an opportunity and called Madhav Mantri, a former Test cricketer from Bombay and, more importantly, Sunil Gavaskar’s uncle. “I’ll see what we can do,” Mantri is said to have replied, and Iqbal knew his idea was now a possibility. The night before the game – April 3, 1981 – Iqbal did not get much sleep. “We were concerned about getting people to watch at all,” says Iqbal, 77, from London, and relishes the moment. So the next day I and a few others were down to the ground at 6:30 am – 7am. While we were driving we saw lines of cars near the ground, long lines at the gates. It was amazing. We were afraid the scaffolding would collapse. I am absolutely sure there were more people outside than inside. “

That day, Miandad XI won, and at a formal dinner later in the evening, the wheels of change began to spin. Abdulrahman Bukhatir is to Sharjah cricket what Kerry Packer was to World Series Cricket. As the organizer and chief patron of the one-time exhibition, Bukhatir presented checks worth $ 50,000 to Mohammad and Iqbal, as well as a token of $ 20,000 to Mantri.

The next day, before flying back to England, I went to Bukhatir’s office to say thank you. There I casually said to him, ‘Abdulrahman. I think we should do this annually. “I told him he had to announce a beneficiary from India and a beneficiary from Pakistan, retired cricketers who had served their country,” said Iqbal. ‘He said,’ I’m pretty happy to do it. But you have to organize it. ‘I immediately agreed.

That was the birth of the CBFS (Cricketers Benefit Fund Series). In no time there was a full-fledged stadium in the middle of a desert, a stadium still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most ODIs in a single venue – 240. The Sydney Cricket Ground emerges in the distance second, with 157 ODIs.

Big steps

The annual Sharjah series almost always featured India or Pakistan or both – understandable given the huge expat population. But other than the odd flicker – Sachin Tendulkar’s 1998 Desert Storm were hundreds like the blazing inferno – Sharjah didn’t leave the Indian cricket team of the 80s and 90s with too many pleasant memories. Officially, India won 35 and lost 37 matches. But here they were most often humiliated by Pakistan. Be it Miandad’s last ball six in 1986 or Aaqib Javed’s hat-trick in a record-breaking spell in 1991. Even India’s last ever ODI here, in the winter of 2000, resulted in a 245-point loss against Sri Lanka, the biggest defeat of India in terms of runs. Despite the results, Sharjah’s charm lay elsewhere. Cigar smoking nobility seated in open boxes of personal television sets, celebrities in retro shades and sun hats and commentator Henry Blofeld’s penchant for spotting dazzling earrings in the crowd, the picturesque sunsets between innings on the soundtrack of commentator Chisty Mujahid’s mid-match summations and neutral referees made it a cricket experience ahead of its time.

The party returns

Today Sharjah serves a different purpose. Together with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it has become home to an exiled Pakistani cricket team. But it will once again host the Indians when the Indian Premier League comes to town. Nearly 19 years after it was off limits by the Indian government, thanks to the match-fixing scandal that turned the game on its head at the turn of the century, Sharjah and the BCCI meet again for the duration of an entire tournament (back in 2014, a part of the IPL played in the UAE, before the general election ended).

The desert stadium will host 12 league matches (locations for playoffs and finals have yet to be decided). The men who organized cricket in Sharjah’s glory days will tell you that they have since missed having India. “Our main earners were the games between India and Pakistan,” said Iqbal. “Remember that these two countries did not host each other almost all of the time they faced each other in Sharjah. And here the world saw Indian and Pakistani supporters sitting together and enjoying the game. “

Dhaka, Singapore, Toronto and Nairobi, there were quite a few neutral locations trying to mimic the magic of Sharjah as a neutral location. But these flirtations were short-lived, as no other neutral location replaced the indispensable Sharjah. “Night cricket, white ball, colored clothes, 20-30 cameras, different angles, this made money,” said Iqbal.

The great rivalry

Nothing sold like a match between India and Pakistan. In the beginning, India consistently won those matches, Dilip Vengsarkar said. “We won every time from 1981 to 1986,” he says. Two games in particular defined this era. “The game where we fired Pakistan for 87 (in 1985, after India was all out for 125). Imran got six wickets (best career 6/14) and the Pakistanis thought they would win, ”said Vengsarkar. The following year, however, the roll of the dice was in Pakistan’s favor. “The match in which Miandad hit the six from the last ball, Pakistan didn’t look back after that.”

They didn’t. Long before the UAE was to become Pakistan’s official home, Sharjah was their fortress. Between 1984 and 2003, Pakistan played more in Sharjah (108 ODIs) than at home (92 ODIs) and won 74 games, with a better win-loss ratio (2.24) than at home (1.69). Both Wasim Akram’s hat-tricks were recorded in Sharjah (in 1989 and 1990). Akram is also one of only two bowlers to have taken over 100 wickets in Sharjah, 122 scalp a shade better than the 114 from Waqar Younis. It all went well on the field. But like the IPL in the mid-2010s, events off the field in Sharjah began to dominate the news cycle.

There is Dawood

Bukhatir’s vision for Sharjah was to combine glitz and glamor with the game. “I used to get calls from celebrities asking if they could come and sit so the public from India and Pakistan could see them in attendance,” said Iqbal. But it wasn’t just them in the stands. Several grainy videos and photos of Dawood Ibrahim – India’s most wanted terrorist – are present. There were stories of him entering the Indian dressing room, one version even claimed that every Indian player was offered a Toyota car if they won.

It all made sense in March 2000, when Delhi police revealed details of their investigation into the biggest match-fixing scandal in the sport, involving Indian captain Mohammed Azharuddin and South African captain Hansie Cronje, among others. By the way, when the news got out, Cronje played his last game ever in Sharjah.

In April 2001, a week before India was due to fly to Sharjah for a tri-nation series involving Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Indian government pulled the plug and banned the BCCI from taking its team to non-regular locations for at least three years. to send. Iqbal remains convinced that Sharjah was wronged because it had become too important. “Success also creates a lot of negativity,” he says. “The other reason is that it was an easy target. We were not an official body. Bukhatir even appointed Clive Lloyd to lead the committee to investigate the alleged finding, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. “

However, the damage was done. Sharjah had become a pariah. Between April 2003 and February 2010, the once-great venue did not receive a single ODI top flight. As the stadium fell into disrepair cricket was picked up in other parts of the UAE. The shiny new Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi was created in 2004 and a few years later the Dubai International Stadium – part of the Dubai Sports City where Bukhatir has a large share – was also born. Sharjah returned to the lap when Pakistan made the UAE their base. But the once jewel of the cricket world had lost its old allure.

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