March 21, 2000

Pakistan's prospects at Sharjah

Col. (Retd) Rafi Nasim

After recovering slightly from the drubbing that it received at the hands of visiting Sri Lankans, the Pakistan Cricket Team is off to Sharjah to participate in the Coca Cola Cup. India and South Africa are the other participants, joining in the competition directly after playing a tough series on Indian soil that India clinched 3-2.

The emergence of Sharjah as a center for One-day cricket in the desert oasis of UAE was not less than a miracle. It was established in the early 80's by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, a cricket loving business magnate with close co-operation from the Cricket Boards of India and Pakistan. Asif Iqbal, a former Pakistan Captain who had earlier assisted Kerry Packer of Australia in the founding of "Kerry Packer Circus" later named as World Series Cricket, associated himself with Mr. Bukhatir in setting up the glorious project.

Creating a lush green playing field and the turf wickets of international standard in the desert was a Herculean task. The author, in the capacity of Secretary Pakistan Cricket Board at that time, was instrumental in the preparation of pitches at Sharjah by transporting the requisite soil from Nandipur, a suburb of Gujranwala and providing the ground staff from Gaddafi Stadium Lahore. The PCB's Curator Muhammad Bashir and his team of groundsmen worked wonders in the preparation of world class pitches in tough and tedious desert conditions.

The aim of this project was to popularize cricket in the Gulf and to create a source of entertainment for millions of immigrants from India and Pakistan and the local cricket lovers. The cricket activity started with matches between India and Pakistan. The tournaments held twice a year created unprecedented interest among the people in UAE. The matches thus drew overwhelming crowds. Since Pakistan emerged triumphant in most of the tournaments, Sharjah came to be known as "a hunting ground for Pakistan". A stage arrived when, displeased with the Pakistanis' constant victories, Kapil Dev a former Indian Captain expressed his annoyance by suggesting a boycott of Sharjah by the Indian team on the plea that "conditions were created to make Pakistan win". On his advice the Indian team did refrain from participating in a couple of tournaments.

A Cricketers Benefit Fund Society (CBFS) was formed to introduce the concept of players' welfare, in addition to controlling the cricket affairs. Sharjah thus gained immense popularity when the CBFS started awarding handsome financial benefits to former cricketers. The Cricket Center, however, got its real international status when the tournaments were opened to all cricket teams of the world. With its high standards of organization and hospitality, Sharjah is perhaps the most popular center for one-day cricket.

The current tournament commences on March 22 with the opening match between India and South Africa. While Pakistan celebrates Pakistan Day on 23rd March, the team will be playing its first match against India on that auspicious day. After suffering defeat in about a dozen matches in a row, the Pakistan Cricket team is not in the best of form. It is also crippled with injuries caused to some very important players.

The team is vying for the Cup without at least three of its top players. Saeed Anwar the leading opener and Saqlain Mushtaq the off-spinner are unwell while Azhar Mahmood the all-rounder is under medical treatment in England. The former Captain and speedster Wasim Akram having just recovered from his groin problem will obviously bowl with restraint. All-rounder Abdur Razzaq who recently recovered from illness, lost his father the other day. He will obviously remain under a spell of sorrow and grief for sometime, which may affect his performance.

As for the new comers in the team, Naved Ashraf, the third opener after Shahid Afridi and Wajahatullah Wasti was awarded the test cap last year. He also played in the Karachi test against Sri Lanka but did not distinguish himself. Off-spinner Shoaib Malik is a prototype of Saqlain Mushtaq. He accompanied the Pakistan team to Australia but remained more of a spectator. Surprisingly, for the reasons best known to the PCB, he was not exposed to Sri Lankans during their tour of Pakistan but found a place in the squad for Sharjah. Imran Nazir, a little known commodity has played odd matches without having come out of the "also ran category".

There is a general feeling that the premature attempts of trying fresh talent under the garb of preparing a new team for World Cup 2003 is causing immense damage to Pakistan's cricket. It must be realized that there is no substitute for experience. Ijaz Ahmed still has a lot of cricket in him. Despite his failure in Karachi Test, courtesy umpires, he should have been included in the squad to strengthen the batting. Similarly, would someone explain the reasons for throwing the ace leg spinner Mushtaq Ahmed in the dustbin? Why must we have two off-spinners in the team and not a genuine leg spinner?

Skipper Moin Khan is very realistic in his admission of the fact that in Sharjah, Pakistan will have very tough competition with India and South Africa. While India has considerably improved its performance during the last few months, South Africa remains the second best team in the world after Australia. With the current standards of performance, form and fitness, the Pakistan team will have to struggle hard to defeat any of the two opponents.

The Squad: Moin Khan (Captain), Inzamam-ul-Haq (Vice Captain), Wajahatullah Wasti, Shahid Afridi, Yousuf Youhana, Younis Khan, Wasim Akram, Abdur Razzaq, Arshad Khan, Shoaib Malik, Shoaib Akhtar, Imran Nazir, Waqar Younis, Mohammad Akram and Naved Ashraf.