The Sharjah Cricket Stadium has been in the news this IPL season for the six-hitting orgies that matches played here have become, with scores of 200-plus commonplace. While batsmen have generally prospered in Sharjah, pitches here haven’t always been to the complete detriment of bowlers. One of India’s most famous wins in the mid-1980s highlights this.
In the four-nation Rothmans Cup played in March 1985, India was bowled out for a paltry 125 by Pakistan, Imran Khan taking six wickets and off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed two. What looked a lost cause was transformed into one of the most melodramatic upsets in ODI cricket when Pakistan was bundled out for 87, Kapil Dev taking three wickets, Ravi Shastri and L Sivaramakrishnan two each.
The purpose of this piece, however, is not to dwell on past matches in Sharjah, but rather acquaint those, especially millennials, about the rise and fall of this tiny emirate as cricket’s El Dorado. The man who brought cricket to Sharjah was Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, an Arab who schooled in Pakistan (BVS Parsi School in Karachi), fell in love with the sport and then made it a lucrative business venture. After Bukhatir returned to his roots, cricket kept tugging at his heart.
The ‘Packer Series’ in Australia in the late 1970s showed him a path to keep the connect with the sport.
But where Kerry Packer, the Australian media mogul, was driven by a bruised ego to start his ‘rebel’ venture, Bukhatir’s pursuit came through an astute understanding of how the oil boom had changed the demographics in the Middle East and the opportunities this offered. Blue- and white-collared expat workers were employed in large numbers in this period in the Middle East, about a million in the UAE itself. A bulk of these came from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, all linked together by cricket. This excited Bukhatir. It was a large enough market to exploit if he could have a proper concept in place. He worked out a simple, ingenious formula.
He got royal patronage, then the goodwill of cricketers through his right-hand man Asif Iqbal, former captain of Pakistan, and structured the enterprise on Indo-Pak rivalry, exploiting the sentiments of expats from these two countries. The beginnings of cricket in Sharjah though were camouflaged in altruism. Forget about recognition from the ICC, Bukhatir didn’t even have the assent of the Indian and Pakistan cricket boards.
To overcome this problem, he floated the Cricketers Benefit Fund Scheme (CBFS), where players from India and Pakistan (initially) were given purses for their contribution to the game. One current and one former cricketer were the beneficiaries. Current players got $50,000, the others $15,000. This might seem ridiculously low when you see even rookies in the IPL earning crores, but it was big money in the 1980s.
The first match in Sharjah was an ‘exhibition’ between Imran XI (featuring Pakistan players) and Gavaskar XI (Indians) in 1981. It was a rousing success as cricket lovers from India and Pakistan based in the UAE thronged the stadium. Fans were hooked and willing to pay a fancy price for the experience. In their otherwise one-dimensional lives of chasing livelihood and working long hours, this was more than just a distraction: It was a trip back to their roots.
Inspired, Bukhatir lobbied hard with all cricket Boards—particularly India and Pakistan—and the ICC for recognition. Players were obviously enthused. Why would they look a gift horse in the mouth? Administrators were slow to agree, but ultimately everybody did, since they were recipients of a share of the profits. And if all Boards were agreeing to participate, the ICC could hardly afford to be recalcitrant. Within a decade, Sharjah became the most frequented venue for ODIs. Every country joined in and offshore cricket in Sharjah— a pipe dream even as late as in the 1970s—became the most coveted and lucrative in the sport.
This was the place where celebrities, the rich and the powerful wanted to be seen. The atmosphere was as heady as it is in the IPL currently. Within the next decade, however, cricket in Sharjah went kaput. What caused this was India pulling out of tournaments hosted by CBFS in 2001. Through the mid-1990s, there was growing unrest in India about undesirable elements from the underworld, including most-wanted don Dawood Ibrahim, being prominent faces at the matches. Around this time, stories of corruption and match-fixing also started swirling in the cricket world, adding to the unease. Sharjah was seen as the hub of this growing malaise.
The precipitating factor was the match-fixing scam around 2000 involving South Africa’s Hansie Cronje and allegedly a clutch of Indian players. Though this scam broke in India, not Sharjah, the BCCI, mulling over the corruption issue for a few years, banned the Indian team from playing there. His dream run rudely interrupted, Bukhatir gave up trying to keep CBFS afloat after a struggle. For a while, cricket in the Gulf became defunct till Dubai and Abu Dhabi emerged as neutral venues for international cricket, primarily to accommodate Pakistan as it couldn’t host matches in its own country.
Today, Sharjah gets some international and IPL matches, but lags behind Abu Dhabi and Dubai in importance, and hits the headlines only for its batsmen-friendly pitches. A far cry from the 1980s, when it was the epicentre of cricket.
Mumbai-based journalist writing on sports, society and other matters