October 31, 2015

Build it in the desert and they'll come

Cricket in Sharjah has a long and colourful history, and the future doesn't look set to be much different

Cricket was being played in Sharjah long before the current stadium came up © Getty Images

You are reminded twice when you step inside the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. "Guinness World Record Holder" says the sign above the Sharjah Club End of the ground. There is also a board, on the wall at the back of a stand, which is kept ticking over. It currently sits on 218 one-day internationals; the next highest figure comes from the SCG, which has hosted 151 matches.

Mazhar Khan has been around for more of them than most. At a rough count, he believes he has seen at least two-thirds of those matches. These days Mazhar is the honorary secretary of the Sharjah Cricket Council, but he was involved in Sharjah cricket before the current stadium was even in existence. "It has been my life," he says.

Like so many who have come to the UAE, Mazhar arrived for work in 1975. He joined a group of companies owned by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the "father" of UAE cricket, who was the driving force in bringing the game to the region, having embraced it while at school in Pakistan.

"There were eight teams in those days," says Mazhar, "We played on hard pitches. There were no grass wickets, just rolled sand."

Sharjah was one of the founding members of the UAE in 1971. By then the influx of expats and overseas companies had started to surge on the back of the oil industry. It was a place to work, but cricket offered an escape on weekends and it is a trait that still holds true today. "The ground is in the midst of an industrial area," says Mazhar, "so when people finish work they see the floodlights on and come over to watch some cricket."

Sachin Tendulkar's desert storm, Javed Miandad's six, Wasim Akram's hat-tricks and, heck, even England winning a one-day trophy are all famous parts of Sharjah's cricket history. However, the full legacy pre-dates internationals in the city by more than a decade. This year, the Bukhatir League, a corporate club league of 16 sides from around the UAE, will see its 42nd consecutive season, having begun in 1974.

Mazhar Khan: "In the initial days it was sometimes scary. We had our first match with 8000-10,000 people sitting on the temporary scaffolding" Andrew McGlashan / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In 1976 a Pakistan International Airlines side - including names such as Wasim Bari, Majid Khan, and Sarfraz Nawaz - came over to play. "That was the first sort of big game," says Mazhar, "and showed what the interest would be like." It was the precursor to the heady days ahead, although first a proper ground was required. Bukhatir earmarked a plot of land by the Sharjah Sports Club and, with the advantage of having a construction company as part of his portfolio, set about building one.

The first one-day international was played in 1984, when Pakistan faced Sri Lanka. Arjuna Ranatunga took 3 for 38 and Roy Dias made a match-winning 57. But it was a match three years earlier that heralded the beginning of Sharjah's international days, when a Sunil Gavaskar XI faced a Javed Miandad XI on an astroturf wicket (though turf proper did not properly arrive until the 1982-83 season).

Albeit not an official international, given what would develop over the next 20 years it was arguably one of the most significant cricket matches. It was played as the Hanif Mohammad and Asif Iqbal benefit match (Iqbal had helped get the teams together), a theme that would become central to Sharjah cricket through the creation of the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series, for which the driving force was Bukhatir, who wanted to give something back to long-serving players.

"In the initial days it was sometimes scary," Mazhar remembers. "We had our first match with 8000-10,000 people sitting on the temporary scaffolding."

Mudassar Nazar, the Pakistan allrounder, who had made a century when he came with a PIA side in the late '70s, played in the 1981 match. "It was totally bare, the outfield was bare. They just put a mat down in the middle," he recalls. "We played in front of a very full house. The stands weren't as tall those days as they are now and were uncovered. Like all India-Pakistan games, even if it's a charity game, it becomes a matter of life and death. It was very competitive."

The match itself, 45 overs a side, was unremarkable. Miandad's XI chased down 140 with 12 overs remaining, but it had set in motion the creation of a cricket legend. "It was a friendly fixture," Mazhar says of the Gavaskar-Miandad game, "but from then on it was recognised what the game could do."

The venue came to define the India-Pakistan rivalry in the '80s and '90s © Getty Images

Mudassar, meanwhile, would go on to play 18 of his 122 ODIs at the ground, and one game in 1985, where India defended 125 - after Imran Khan had taken a career-best 6 for 14 - still sticks out for him. "They had beaten us in the mini World Cup, as it was known, in Australia. We were smarting. When we bowled them out for 125 we thought we were coasting. That was probably the hardest defeat we ever had against them in Sharjah.

"I believe that if you were Indian or Pakistani and you played cricket in Sharjah you could withstand any pressure in the world. The rivalry was so intense that you dared not lose a match here. A couple of times it was the crowd that won the game."

His highest ODI score, 95, also came at the ground, although he remembers with a laugh how it ended. "We didn't need many to win, I gave myself room to try and hit Bruce Reid for six and was bowled. The next man in [Manzoor Elahi] wasn't very pleased."

There is, though, a darker part to the Sharjah story. When match-fixing reared its head in early 2000, the ground was caught in the storm. There has never been any proof linking the venue to matches that were fixed, but the stigma stuck. The BCCI banned India from playing there. They have not appeared in Sharjah since 2000 and in the UAE only briefly, for two ODIs in 2006 to mark the opening of the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. That's as a national side, at least, because in 2014 the IPL rolled into town, which led to a frenzied atmosphere.

But it wasn't just one team that shunned the desert: Sharjah became a global cricketing outcast. From April 2003 to February 2010 it did not stage an international fixture, although in 2004 it played host to the inaugural Intercontinental Cup final, between Canada and Scotland, and did stage further matches in the competition before its return as an ODI venue when it became a home ground for Afghanistan in 2010.

No one's done it as many times as Sharjah Andrew McGlashan / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"It was very harsh," Mudassar says of the exile. "It was cricket which suffered. Because any tournament in Sharjah was very exciting, it helped towards the development of cricketers."

"There was never any evidence against Sharjah. Cricket never stopped here," says Mazhar. "The local leagues remained very popular and the ground was still very busy."

Still, the ground needed extensive work to return to international standard. The local goats and chickens had increasingly free rein of the place. Jeroen Smits, at the time the Netherlands captain, played at the venue after it had fallen into disrepair. "When we returned to our dressing room after the day's play, we saw a massive rat run in front of us," he told the National in 2009. "The showers were unusable, and you certainly wouldn't choose to use the toilets."

But, in the UAE, if you want something built or fixed you can probably get it. By 2011 the ground was suitable for the return of Full Member sides. When Pakistan played Sri Lanka, the "home" supporters were given a treat, as Shahid Afridi produced a magnificent all-round display, first hitting 75 off 65 balls to lift Pakistan from 97 for 6 and then claimed five wickets after Sri Lanka had been 155 for 3 chasing 201. Sharjah was back.

"Afridi, the hero that they had come to cheer, woke them up with a sixer off Mendis to long on to announce that there is still a battle left in the match," the report in Gulf News said. "The fans cheered for Afridi who settled down to enthrall the 16,000 fans with shots many had not seen in the recent years."

The less famous part of the Sharjah story is its role as a Test venue: England will become the fifth "visiting" nation to play there when the ground hosts its eighth Test on Sunday. However, Sharjah was the original neutral venue in the UAE - before Dubai and Abu Dhabi had international grounds -- when Pakistan needed a second home.

Even England have won a one-day tournament here © PA Photos

It became Test cricket's 83rd ground in 2002, when Pakistan hosted West Indies following the 9/11 attacks. It was just the third time the format had been played on neutral ground, after the 1912 triangular tournament in England and the final of 1998-99 Asian Test Championship in Dhaka. Later that same year, Australia visited (their series was split between Colombo and Sharjah) and produced a remarkable display in the first of two Sharjah Tests when they dismantled Pakistan for 59 and 53 in searing heat.

"It was 53 degrees, we had drinks every 20 minutes," Shane Warne recalled in a recent interview. "The fast bowlers bowled one-over spells."

Nine years later, in 2011, Test cricket returned when Pakistan faced Sri Lanka. In 2014, the same sides met again, and Pakistan chased down 302 to win. Last year when New Zealand visited, the Test was played under the cloud of Phillip Hughes' death, which meant an unofficial rest day, before Brendon McCullum slammed 202 off 188 balls to set New Zealand up for a series-levelling victory.

It is a ground that has seen almost everything in cricket. Having the international game firmly back in the city gives Mudassar "a lot of joy". "Cricket has brought so much happiness to this part of the world," Mazhar says. Sharjah's world record is safe for some time to come.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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