Mother of one-day venues Sharjah back in limelight again

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Tuesday, March 21, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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When a small group of cricket writers were invited to what was a first in the little-known emirate of Sharjah, an international cricket match, with the participation of some highly-reputed players from India, Pakistan, England and the West Indies, almost two decades ago, this columnist had joined the rest, sharing a feeling of high uncertainty. Cricket in the desert? Many felt it would be a one-day wonder, here today gone tomorrow.

Even if the expectations of a good, or, for that matter, an orthodox game of cricket, were quite low, the respect for the people behind this project, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, a great cricket lover and a flourishing businessman in the Gulf, and former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal, were quite high, considering that they had already roped in the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Clive Lloyd and the rest of the marquee names on the cricketing horizon.

Sharjah, which had until then lived under the shadow of the more prosperous and famous Dubai, was developing fast in its own way, but there can be no doubt that cricketers and its followers were to be told to come to Dubai first. Because that was the place known so well around the world.

A barren ground suddenly had a sprinkling of grass and a few stands were put up on either side of a distant venue, almost halfway between Sharjah and Dubai. A synthetic surface was imported to provide what was then described as a "sporting wicket," because whatever the players did, bowled seamers or spinners, it was expected to behave in an uniform way.

Even if it did not have the remotest touch of the Lord's, the Oval or even the Wankhede Stadium, Sharjah had suddenly become a venue where some of the world's greatest cricketers had congregated. The enthusiasm of the promoters was as good as, if not even better than, that of professional cricket officials, as Bukhatir and Asif Iqbal, with the support of the cricket boards of India and Pakistan, had tried to hard-sell the game to the locals.

Not many Arabs, who called it "krikhait," with a heavy Arabesque intonation, appeared enthused. But the promoters were banking heavily on the support of the hordes of expatriates from India and Pakistan.

To be very frank, the very first promotional matches weren't a great success, but the spirits of those behind the move to bring big cricket to the Gulf was hardly dampened. They were, in fact, encouraged to make the promotions bigger and more regular.

With every passing year, their ambitions grew bigger, so did the promotions. The prize-money was so fabulous that there wasn't a player who did not want to play at Sharjah. Not only have all the nine Test-playing nations played there, but also some others who have had aspirations of getting into the big league.

These promotions in Sharjah have certainly helped the United Arab Emirates to become a full member of the Asian Cricket Conference and an associated member of the International Cricket Association.

In the last two decades all the leading players of the world have made an appearance at Sharjah. And the popularity of the event is so intense that the organizers are now hosting two events a year.

The desert venue has been transformed into the most popular amphitheater for one-day cricket. It is the only ground which has hosted more than 100 one-day internationals.

The prize-money is getting bigger to match with the biggest anywhere. The worldwide TV coverage by the leading networks has helped. But perhaps the most important aspect of the tourneys is that they provide an opportunity to the organizers to honour four cricketers, two each from India and Pakistan, with a worthy benefit for them. The players are selected by a panel that includes India's Sunil Gavaskar and Mansur Ali "Tiger" Pataudi. The benefits range from $ 15,000 to 35,000.

The success of the Sharjah tournaments is mainly due to the support of the Indians and Pakistanis, including both the expatriates settled there as well as those who visit the venue of the matches from their own countries. When teams from India and Pakistan clash, the "house-full" board invariably goes up.

But unfortunately, this fierce rivalry between the two teams, or rather countries, had been exploited once by a group who were far from being lovers of cricket. Some rabble-rousers in the crowd, a few years ago, had raised the flag of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and shouted anti-India slogans.

What had, however, embarrassed the Indian participants and the diplomats more was that the then Pakistan skipper Imran Khan had sympathized with this group representatives. It was then that the Indian government had decided to pull out of all future tournaments in Sharjah.

The promoters were unhappy, as their tournaments, without the participation of the Indian team, were not the same any more. They gave assurances to the Indian cricket board and the government that they would not allow any such ugly scenes to be repeated and the impasse of almost three years, when India did not go to Sharjah, was finally broken. And it was back to business again.

The use of the word "business" is appropriate, as there is no dearth of sponsors. In fact, they vie with one another to obtain the title sponsorship, and big cricket in Sharjah these days means the involvement of every big corporate house, as well as the smaller business houses in the Gulf, India and Pakistan.

So enthusiasm builds as the Coca-Cola tri-series, in which India and Pakistan are joined by the South Africans, is all set to begin on March 22. India take on South Africa who will be keen to make-up for the one-day series loss they suffered in India.

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