The plan was to host just one exhibition match, yet that unofficial contest in the desert would go on to shape the landscape of international cricket for years to come.
This is how it began: the year was 1981 and what would go on to become Sharjah Cricket Stadium was still a barren piece of land, embedded with a concrete pitch. The exhibition match, to benefit Pakistan legend Hanif Mohammad and the recently retired Asif Iqbal, would be played on a synthetic surface, with a plan to seat about a thousand spectators in a temporary scaffolding. Iqbal was tasked with getting the first teams of India and Pakistan on board - to be called Gavaskar XI and Miandad XI.
A London resident, Iqbal flew to Pakistan and convinced Javed Miandad. To do the same with the Indian team - who were then touring Australia - Iqbal took a chance and called Madhav Mantri, a former Test cricketer from Bombay and, more importantly, Sunil Gavaskar's uncle. "I'll see what we can do," Mantri is said to have replied and Iqbal knew that his idea was now a possibility. The night before the match - 3 April, 1981 - Iqbal didn't get much sleep. "We were concerned whether we would get any people at all coming to watch," says Iqbal,77, from London, reliving that moment with great fondness. "So, the next day, I and a few others were at the ground at 6:30-7 in the morning. While we were driving, we saw lines of cars near the ground, long queues at the gates. It was amazing. We were scared the scaffolding might collapse. I'm absolutely sure that there were more people outside than inside."
That day, Miandad XI won, and at a formal dinner later in the evening, the wheels of change began turning. Abdulrahman Bukhatir is to Sharjah cricket what Kerry Packer was to World Series Cricket. As organiser and chief patron of the one-off exhibition, Bukhatir handed cheques worth $50,000 to Mohammad and Iqbal and a $20,000 token of appreciation to Mantri as well.
"Next day, before I flew back to England, I went to Bukhatir's office to thank him. There, I casually told him, 'Abdulrahman. I think we should do this annually.' I told him that he had to announce a beneficiary from India and a beneficiary from Pakistan, retired cricketers who had served their country," says Iqbal. "He said, 'I'm quite happy to do it. But you have to organise it.' I straightaway agreed.
"That was the birth of the CBFS (Cricketers Benefit Fund Series)". In no time, there was a full-fledged stadium in the middle of a desert, one that continues to find itself in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most ODIs in a single venue - 240. The Sydney Cricket Ground comes a distant second, with 157 ODIs.
The annual Sharjah series almost always featured either India or Pakistan or both - understandable, given the country's vast expat population. But apart from the odd flicker - Sachin Tendulkar's Desert Storm hundreds in 1998 being the blazing inferno - Sharjah didn't leave the 80s and 90s Indian cricket team with too many pleasant memories. Officially, India won 35 and lost 37 games. But this is where they were most often humiliated by Pakistan. Be it Miandad's last-ball six in 1986 or Aaqib Javed's hattrick during a record-breaking spell in 1991. Even India's last ever ODI here, in the winter of 2000, resulted in a 245-run loss to Sri Lanka, India's biggest defeat in terms of runs. Results notwithstanding, Sharjah's charm lay elsewhere. Cigar-smoking gentry seated in open boxes with personal TV sets, celebrities in retro shades and sun hats and commentator Henry Blofeld's penchant for spotting dazzling earrings in the crowd, the picturesque sunsets between the innings set to the soundtrack of commentator Chisty Mujahid's mid-match summations and neutral umpires made it a cricket experience well ahead of its time.
The party returns
These days, Sharjah serves a different purpose. Along with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it has become home to an exiled Pakistan cricket team. But it will once again play hosts to the Indians as the Indian Premier League comes to town. Almost 19 years after it was put off-limits by the Indian government, thanks to the match-fixing scandal that rocked the game at the turn of the century, Sharjah and the BCCI meet again for the duration of an entire tournament (back in 2014, a part of the IPL was played in the UAE before shifting back to India after the general elections had concluded).
The desert stadium will host 12 league matches (venues for playoffs and finals are yet to be decided). The men who organised cricket in Sharjah's glory days will tell you that they have since missed having India over. "Our main bread earner was the matches between India and Pakistan," says Iqbal. "Don't forget that these two countries weren't hosting each other for almost the entire time that they faced each other in Sharjah. And here, the world saw Indian and Pakistani supporters sitting together and enjoying the game."
Dhaka, Singapore, Toronto and Nairobi, there were quite a few neutral venues that tried to recreate Sharjah's magic as a neutral venue. But these flirtations were brief, for no other neutral venue quite replaced the indispensable Sharjah. "Night cricket, white ball, coloured clothing, 20-30 cameras, different angles, these are what generated funds," says Iqbal.
The great rivalry
Nothing sold quite like an India-Pakistan match. In the beginning, India won those matches consistently, says Dilip Vengsarkar. "Right from 1981 till 1986 we used to win every time," he says. Two contests in particular defined this era. "The match where we dismissed Pakistan for 87 (in 1985, after India were all out for 125). Imran got six wickets (career-best 6/14) and the Pakistanis thought they would win," says Vengsarkar. The following year, however, the role of the dice was in Pakistan's favour. "The match where Miandad hit the six off the last ball, Pakistan didn't look back after that."
They didn't. Much before the UAE was to become Pakistan's official home, Sharjah was their fortress. Between 1984 and 2003, Pakistan played more in Sharjah (108 ODIs) than at home (92 ODIs), winning 74 matches, with a better win-loss ratio (2.24) than at home (1.69). Both of Wasim Akram's hattricks was registered in Sharjah (in 1989 and 1990). Akram is also one of only two bowlers to take more than 100 wickets in Sharjah, his 122 scalps a shade better than Waqar Younis's 114. It was all going swimmingly on the field. But quite like the IPL in the mid-2010s, the off-field events in Sharjah began dominating the news cycle.
There sits Dawood
Bukhatir's vision for Sharjah was to marry glitz and glamour to the game. "I used to get phone calls from celebrities, asking if they could come and sit so that audiences from India and Pakistan could see them in attendance," says Iqbal. But it wasn't just them at the stands. There are several grainy videos and photographs of Dawood Ibrahim - India's most wanted terrorist - in attendance. There were stories of him entering the Indian dressing room, one version even claiming that every Indian player was offered a Toyota car if they won.
It all went belly up in March 2000, when the Delhi Police revealed details of their investigation into the biggest match-fixing scandal in the sport, involving, among others, India captain Mohammed Azharuddin and South Africa captain Hansie Cronje. Incidentally, when the news broke, Cronje was playing his last ever match in Sharjah.
In April 2001, a week before India were to fly to Sharjah for a tri-nation series involving Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Indian government pulled the plug, prohibiting the BCCI to send its team to non-regular venues for at least three years. Iqbal remains convinced that Sharjah was wronged because it had become too important. "Success also courts a lot of negativity," he says. "The other reason is that it was an easy target. We were not an official body. Bukhatir even appointed Clive Lloyd to head the committee to look into the alleged fixing, but it found no evidence of wrongdoing."
The damage, however, had been done. Sharjah had become a pariah. Between April 2003 and February 2010, the once great venue didn't get to host a single top flight ODI. As the stadium fell into decay, cricket picked up in other parts of the UAE. The shiny new Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi came to existence in 2004 and a few years later, the Dubai International Stadium - part of the Dubai Sports City where Bukhatir has a major stake - was born as well. Sharjah did return to the fold once Pakistan made UAE their base. But the once jewel of the cricket world had lost its old allure.