For three decades from the early 1980s until the 2000s, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a frequent meeting point for the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams. At a time when not much bilateral cricket was happening between these teams, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, built by business tycoon Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, was the venue for some famous India versus Pakistan cricket contests.
For hundreds of thousands of migrant workers here in the UAE from both India and Pakistan, these contests were a great opportunity to witness their heroes in action.
But several factors denied those opportunities in the following years. Finally, the Indian cricket team has returned to the UAE after more than a decade.
The last time India played their arch-rivals in UAE was 12 years ago in 2006 when Abu Dhabi hosted a two-match ODI series for the benefit of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake victims.
India played their first match in UAE since 2006 on Tuesday when they took on Hong Kong and will play their last group game on Wednesday against Pakistan. The Asian Cricket Council that conducts the tournament is set for a financial windfall as there is a possibility of India and Pakistan playing three times in the competition.
All India–Pakistan games will take place in Dubai. Several other matches will be played in Abu Dhabi, but Sharjah has been sidelined.
Sharjah has hosted 228 ODIs, the most by a single venue and a world record. But why has the venue been sidelined? In fact, India have not played in Sharjah since the year 2000. This is after India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) report that investigated corruption in cricket highlighted Sharjah as a hub of match-fixing.
For seven years, no international cricket took place in Sharjah. Gradually other teams relaxed the restrictions but India don’t want to take any chances.
When Manchester United play pre-season friendlies in places like Japan and the United States, fans crave to get a glimpse of their stars. The same happens when India play overseas whether it be Australia, England or South Africa. UAE is no different.
Wednesday’s first-round clash between the neighbours has been highly anticipated and tickets were sold out 72 hours prior to the game. A week before the clash, the only tickets that were available were priced at 6000 Dirhams (US$ 1600, INR 118,000).
Pakistan are a competitive unit in UAE and they have not lost any game in white-ball cricket in their adopted home since 2016. They have been unbeaten in 14 games. The absence of Virat Kohli is a blow for the Indians but they have got all bases covered with a well-balanced side. India are ranked second in the world in ODIs.
Fifth-placed Pakistan, on the other hand, have made tremendous strides with regards to fitness and fielding in the last couple of years. They are a young side with an average age of 24 and are looking to break new ground.
There have been some epic India–Pakistan contests over the years in the UAE, like the low-scoring thriller in the Rothmans Cup in 1985.
Laxman Sivaramakrishnan played in that game and told Firstpost how Kapil Dev fired up his team after their poor performance with the bat.
“We were in Sharjah a week after we had beaten Pakistan twice in the World Championship, including the final. It was a Friday and it was a fairly long lunch break as we had failed to utilise our 50 overs. All Kapil Dev said during that break was if they can get us out for 125, we can get them out for less. So that kind of motivation was great. Then we bowled them out for 87,” he said.
“We showed a lot of character to fight back. There was a brilliant run out by Mohinder Amarnath from mid-on. There was very good slip catching by Sunil Gavaskar. Wickets came for us at crucial times. Ravi Shastri picked up three wickets and I picked up two. The best game probably I have played against Pakistan.”
Pakistanis, of course, fondly remember Javed Miandad’s last-ball six in the final of the 1986 Asia Cup which they won by one wicket off the last ball.
“We were losing that game from half-past nine to five minutes to five and suddenly that last ball went for a six. Before that game, we were heavily losing against India. That win gave us such confidence that we were better than India for the next three or four years. That win had that kind of impact on our psyche. The fans obviously loved us for that,” Ramiz Raja, who played in that game, said.
Ramiz, a former Pakistan captain, also made an appeal to the authorities to resume Test cricket between the nations. “Test cricket as it is struggling. There aren’t many takers for Test cricket, especially in Asia. So you have got to feature India and Pakistan to help promote Test cricket. It is not happening, which is sad. The world would want to see India and Pakistan play. It is already the bestseller. You see the attraction for such a game. I am hurt and I am extremely disappointed. The authorities are just saying that we cannot control the situation instead of doing something about that.”