You would think BCCI, which is hosting the Asia Cup in the UAE, would have a sense of history towards a pedigreed venue like Sharjah. But there’s the rub.
Dubai/Sharjah: Inside one mall, you can ski down an 85 metre slope — about the height of 25 storeys — perfectly snow-clad, all year round, even if the temperature is pushing 50°C outside. In another, you can get in a protective cage and, wetsuits and breathing gear in place, feed sharks, even as experienced divers draw them to you. In a third location, you can experience the thrill of sky diving, without being anywhere near the sky or even jumping, forget about diving — the wind tunnel doing all the work for you.
This is Dubai, where the premium is on gratification and customer satisfaction, even as authenticity dies quietly in a corner.
That’s why it simply does not feel right that the Asia Cup 2018 is being played in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, cricketing venues that have come up more recently, while Sharjah has got the cool shoulder (There is no such thing as a cold shoulder in this region, air-conditioning notwithstanding).
No sense of history or gratitude
The Asia Cup reflects this dichotomy perfectly. No cricket would have been played in this desert had it not been for Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, who put Sharjah on the global cricket map.
Actually, that does him little justice. He brought cricket to the region in the early 1980s when most international cricketers could not find the region on a map.
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Over the years, the Cricketers’ Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) handed out fat cheques to players who were paid a pittance by their home boards. From 1981 to 2002, nearly US$10 million had been disbursed to players participating in games in officially recognised tournaments in Sharjah.
From India, here’s a list of players who have gladly accepted pay cheques when their own board was either unable or unwilling to pay: Madhav Mantri, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Ramakant Desai, Salim Durrani, Eknath Solkar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath, Ravi Shastri, K. Srikkanth, Erapalli Prasanna, S. Venkataraghavan … and many more.
You would think that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would have a sense of history, and the players — some of whom are in positions of power, including the current head coach — a feeling of gratitude towards Sharjah.
But there’s the rub.
Waiting with open arms
There are authentic experiences to be had in the desert, not least of which is falconry. These magnificent birds will climb high into the skies, wheel away and swoop as if on the hunt, but pull up short and perch on your gloved arm to take a treat from you. You can train the falcon, but it will not hunt for you, behave like a pigeon, or return to you unless you respect it.
Now cricket had a chance to show respect for the region. The BCCI, hosting this Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates, and the Asian Cricket Council, organising it on its behalf, had a responsibility to Sharjah.
Imagine a World Cup being played in India with no matches in Delhi, the national capital, Kolkata, the emotional capital, or Mumbai, the cricketing capital.
Despite starting late and being banned, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium has hosted more One-Day Internationals than any other venue in the world.
Sharjah stands at 234; the next best is the Sydney Cricket Ground at 148. Lord’s has 58, Sinhalese Sports Club 53, Wanderers 46, Eden Gardens 29.
Cricket loves history and pedigree, so why has an example been made of Sharjah?
Bukhatir, who is never the kind to be drawn into controversy or debate, but is privately pained by the recent rebuff to Sharjah, is away in Morocco on business. But he told ThePrint: “We are extremely proud of what we at Sharjah have done for cricket in the region these past thirty years and for individual cricketers, especially from the subcontinent. The Sharjah magic endures even today.
“We would love to host the top teams again in this historic ground, with its exceptional fan base.
“Where India is concerned, it has been a very successful relationship and we would be delighted to rekindle that mutual affection. If there are any issues on the anvil, I would always be available to address them. I do believe that there is nothing that cannot be resolved through dialogue, and what better tribute to cricket as a sport than for India to play again at Sharjah.”
The D connection
For all the cricketers on their first visit to the region, there is more to this place than seven-star hotels and malls that need their own GPS navigation. But they may never know, because they did not play in Sharjah.
Why not? There’s an old balloon that floats in India. Every time there is a major crime that cannot be solved, it is blamed on Dawood Ibrahim, him of the dark glasses and cream shirt who was always pictured speaking on the phone in his private box at the Sharjah Cricket Ground. It is an image that every Indian and Pakistani cricket fan is intimately familiar with.
Yet, to associate cricket in Sharjah only with the Don and his aviators does a disservice to the ground.
A lot of mysteries are laid at his doorstep, and why this tournament would not embrace Sharjah remains unanswered. But, an Asia Cup in the UAE without Sharjah cannot be put in that filing cabinet of unsolved mysteries blamed on Dawood Ibrahim.
That is just not cricket.
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