The venue evokes a nostalgia among fans who followed cricket that it hosted in the 80’s and 90’s.
by Bilal Ahsan dar
During the just concluded Asia Cup, Sharjah Cricket Stadium made it to the Guinness Book of World Records. The legendary cricket ground has now hosted most number of international cricket matches, leaving behind Sydney Cricket Ground on the way. The match between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan on September 3, 2022 was the 281st international cricket match to be played at the venue.
For those who grew up watching cricket in the 80s and 90s, Sharjah evokes a nostalgic feeling, like a very few other venues – more so for the fans of India and Pakistan. There are several unforgettable matches, moments and individual performances that generate a wide ranging emotions.
Back in the day when the cricket calendar wasn’t as chock-a-block as it is now, when the satellite television was not all the rage and the radio was mainstream, when internet was only an idea rather than a reality, the Sharjah Cup or other sponsored tournaments at Sharjah, that included bilateral or tri-nation or four-nation one day tournaments, were a proverbial oasis in the heart of a blistering summer.
The heyday of the Asian cricket unfolded at Sharjah. The stadium has witnessed the best Asian cricket in the white ball format, when India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were almost equals and Bangladesh an upcoming side.
Built in the early 1980s, a brainchild of Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, Sharjah very quickly became a regular home for tournaments as the popularity of one-day cricket exploded following India’s World Cup win in 1983. Between 1984 and 2003 the ground hosted 198 ODIs and four Tests (in 2002 when Pakistan played games there due to political instability at home), attracting good crowds, mainly comprising large Asian expat population. It also hosted masters (veterans) events and other second-string tournaments. All were played under the auspices of The Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) which had been established in 1981 by Bukhatir, and whose main aim was to honour cricketers of the past and present generations from India and Pakistan, with benefit purses in recognition of their services to the game of cricket. The stadium initially started with a few limited seats and very modest facilities but, by 2002, it had a 27,000 capacity and floodlights.
But when the match-fixing scandals began to emerge in the late 1990s, Sharjah’s star began to wane, and although nothing was ever proved, sides started to move away, and in 2001 the Indian government banned the national side from playing there. Between April 2003 and February 2010, the venue hosted no internationals, which changed with the ICC associate teams beginning to play games there and Pakistan needing an off-shore venue because of security problems at home.
Sharjah had an advantage over the venues in India and Pakistan which were overwhelmingly frequented by the locals. Sharjah crowds had a cosmopolitan appeal with a mix of fans from India, Pakistan Bangladesh and even other nationalities. A neutral venue, the pitch conditions were very similar to those of India and Pakistan.
In Sharjah, it wasn’t just cricket, it was a carnival. A fantastic atmosphere that would create pressure cooker situations for the competing sides as it wasn’t a total home advantage for any team.
Probably the early glory days of white ball cricket, when there would be close finishes, big hits and glamour associated with the game belong to this venue. From the commentary box, the enthusiasm of Tony Grieg, who probably revolutionized the cricket commentary with his signature ‘going, going, gone’ and other taglines, would add to the spectacle.
For those tuned into their radio sets, the commentary from Radio Pakistan would bring it alive without any visual aid. Ahtishamul Haq, Mirza Iqbal beigh, Chesti Mujahid, Idress, Rihan Nawaz and Raja Asad would captivate an audience that didn’t have access to TV. Their presentation would draw a sketch of the scene in the mind of a listener – tamashaion ka thathay marta sumandar (a boisterous sea of spectators). Or gaind dandanati huvee bouandary se bahar – ball racing past the boundary. It was absolutely mesmerizing! The way of expression and choice of words would make it all the more exciting.
Some of the awesome memories associated with the venue are Javed Miandad’s last ball six of Chetan Sharma, when Pakistan needed 4 runs of the final delivery to win the match and Wasim Akram getting hat-tricks against West Indies and Australia. Aqib Javed’s Hat-trick against India, Saeed Anwar’s three consecutive centuries and a lot more. All these memories come to mind at the mere mention of Sharjah.
In fact, Pakistan’s majority of nerve-racking ODI victories have come at Sharjah. It is as if there is some magic force at the ground that always ensures that Pakistan comes back from nowhere to win a game that they seem to be losing all along.
Naseem Shah’s two consecutive sixes of the final over against Afghanistan on Wednesday evening was only a continuation of the legacy.
For the Indian fans, memories of Sachin Tendulkar’s ‘Desert Storm’ are still fresh. On April 22, 1998, the batting great hit 143 off 131 balls to tear into the Australian bowling that included Damien Fleming, Michael Kasprowich and spin wizard Shane Warne. The match was halted due to a sand storm and then Tendulkar exploded. That is how the knock came to be known as the ‘Desert Storm’. In the final match of the same tournament, the maestro hit another strokeful 134 off 131 balls against the same opposition; the day happened to be his birthday.
Sharjah was world’s premier spot for the ODIs in the 1990s, but it always had a looming threat of the underworld involvement.
When the match fixing allegations came to the fore in 2000, most of the matches at this venue were under the scanner. In fact, Dilip Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev once conceded that a guy walked into their room in 1987 and offered Toyota cars if they beat England, Australia and Pakistan in the four-nation Sharjah Cup.
Eventually Sharjah was blacklisted by the BCCI, which however wasn’t taken well by many, as match fixing was believed to be a global menace. Today, cricket is back at Sharjah. It gets to host international matches and in fact, in 2014, it also hosted some IPL games. It may not be as important a venue now as other ones in the UAE – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – but to many fans, their memory without Sharjah’s cricketing folklore is incomplete.
Bilal ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.