India v Pakistan, 1st ODI, DLF Cup, Abu Dhabi April 18, 2006

Honeymoon in Abu Dhabi

Sabin Iqbal at the Zayed Stadium
Roving Reporter from the DLF Cup in Abu Dhabi



Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, joined the dignitaries as cricket returned to the Middle East © Getty Images

When the miserly Mohammad Asif hurled down the first ball, under the fierce Middle-Eastern sun, international cricket came back to life in its desert outpost. The heat, literally, was on, with the temperature soaring over 40 degrees and the Zayed Stadium appeared to be a splash of green across the grey desert.

Despite the stifling heat and Tuesday being a working day here in Abu Dhabi, the crowd swelled gradually across the swanky stadium. That was no surprise. For six years, they have been nursing the hurt at the decline of cricket in Sharjah, once an oasis on the one-day cricket calendar. Now, the caravan has moved nearly 200 kilometres down south.

The passion, though, has not been left behind. Cricket, especially the India-Pakistan variety, is what the people want. The Abu Dhabi Cricket Council had made sure that all the trappings of the occasion were in place. Bollywood stars, politicians and businessmen played their roles to perfection. Parvez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, kept his promise to fly across. As did Salman Khan.

At 3.30, when umpire Rudi Koertzen called out "Play", someone in the northern stand held up a placard, "Third umpire, please give me some water". In the heat and dust of the open stands, the catcalls soon started and the vitriolic slogans echoed around.

Like a blushing bride, the new pitch was coy. Neither the batsmen nor the bowlers could get much out of her. Bounce, speed and deviation were at a premium, and the outfield stretched out pleasantly as the Pakistani bowlers strangled the Indians.

There was no gladiatorial surge. No blood-boiling stroke-play. Robin Uthappa's exuberance was short-lived as he slapped one straight to the fielder at short mid-on. So was Yuvraj's touch. After spanking a four, the regal Yuvraj tickled one straight to Kamran Akmal.

Once Rahul Dravid and Irfan Pathan were run out, the Indians fell silent. Shahid Afridi then triggered a flutter among the Pathans in the crowd when he picked up Suresh Raina. They have missed him in these parts.

Dhoni walked in to a roar, and soon walked back. No Indian soul moved. All of a sudden, the Indians looked a different side from the one that had been so belligerently crushing its opponents. The flourish was absent, and the energy looked sapped. Was Dravid taking anticipatory bail when he said that nothing - not even defeats in the two matches here - could take the sheen off the team's recent success?

There was noise, but not the deafening din we were used to in Sharjah. But the promise of drama, madness and frolic was there. The green flag was unfurled and it swayed across the grass banks as Indian batsmen holed out at regular intervals. Timidity was written all over the innings and four run-outs punctuated the downfall to 197 all out. The best part of the first innings came at the dinner break - pyrotechnics, a technicolour laser show and a traditional dance by local artistes.

The Emirates has embraced change rapidly, and that was especially evident in the media centre - on the fifth level, with reporters literally having a bird's eye view. The last time international cricket was played in the country, the press box did not have one Arab journalist. Now there were a handful of them, getting crash-courses from the Indian and Pakistani reporters. One pretty television anchor said that she held a masters degree in sports, but has never heard of this strange game. The ICC can take heart; the game, it seems, has jumped over the cultural fence.

Sabin Iqbal is editor of the Dubai-based Sports Today magazine