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Arabian nights and untold cricket riches in concrete theatre

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins

15 December 1997


CRICKET never ceases to produce unlikely facts, but is it not one of the oddest of all that a stadium created out of barren sand in the desert of the Arabian Gulf should have staged more one-day international matches than any other ground? To be sure, it is.

Televised coverage of the current series of matches in Sharjah may be restricted to Asia, but next year the spread is bound to be much wider. By decree of the International Cricket Council, the United Arab Emirates Cricket Board will be host to all the major countries of the cricket world in what ought to be called the Development Fund Cup. Unwisely for the good of the only one-day tournament which really stands apart, it has already been given the working title of the Mini World Cup.

The UAE are an Associate Member of the ICC, in common with such countries as Bermuda, Bangladesh, Kenya, Canada and Singapore. The choice of Sharjah as the best place to hold a full members' competition, by which the Haves of the cricket world will be hoping to raise big money for the Have Nots, certainly owes something to the realities of cricketing commerce and politics. Jagomahan Dalmiya, the Bengali president of the ICC, knows the scene here well and must be confident that nine matches in 10 days next October, a brief window of opportunity in the ceaseless programme of international matches, will be profitable.

The original credit for the Sharjah stadium, and all that has flowed from it, belongs, however, to one Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the son of a wealthy Sheikh who developed a passion for cricket at the Parsi School in Karachi in the Fifties. He combined his wealth, from oil and banking, his vision and his love for the game to bring professional cricketers to a place where the average annual rainfall is a mere 2.4 inches.

Once peopled only by sea-faring Arab tribes, what is now the greatest trading entrepot of the Middle East used to be known as the Pirate Coast. I first came here on two short cricket tours of Dubai in the early Eighties. It was a major surprise to learn that more than 70 clubs formed by expatriates from England, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka already played league cricket on concrete pitches.

Even then we played a match under floodlights on Astroturf. The prize, as I recall, was a gold bar and the fortunate members of the first team, gathered by The Cricketer magazine, were obliged to declare an exotic collection of gifts to Customs officials when we flew back to London. Mike Denness, our captain, still uses the handsome leather briefcase which was the most useful of the presents; mine, alas, was stolen on the eve of a NatWest final.

Cricket matches on sand, or at stadia in Dubai intended for sports needing a smaller area, were all very well. Bukhatir's idea for his ground at Sharjah, a separate State within the supreme council of seven Emirates but as close to Dubai as Brighton is to Hove, was for something altogether more sophisticated. Grass seed was imported from Australia for the outfield and soil from the Punjab for the base of the square, which has proved remarkably durable. Local concrete sufficed for the circular stadium itself and by 1981 it was built.

The first tournament between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka was played two years later and there have been 22 since, under various titles. Asif Iqbal, that beguiling batsman from Pakistan, who has co-ordinated the international cricketing activities from the outset under the title of the Cricketers' Benefit Fund Series, says that over $4 million (2.5 million) has been raised in honour of a succession of former Test cricketers, mainly but not exclusively from the sub-Continent. Those benefiting this time are Dilip Doshi, G S Ramchand, Ashok Mankad, Saleem Altaf, Asif Mujtaba and Richie Richardson.

Once Rupert Murdoch's Star television started operating by satellite from Hong Kong, using cricket as its main means of expansion for an audience from the sub-Continent already besotted with the one-day game, the stakes were raised. Several of the usual suspects, Geoff Boycott, Michael Holding et al, have been flown in for the current matches and the fact that the equipment has been rented from the BBC and that then production is being directed by the ex-BBC man, Keith Mackenzie, makes it more ironic that the pictures and voices are not reaching Britain.

Contemporary players have benefited too. When Javed Miandad hit a six off the last ball of the match to defeat India in one of the early finals he was showered with money and presented with a dagger encrusted with jewels. It may have been a very modern tale of the Arabian Nights but it was hardly a surprise in a land full of wealth. Sports grounds with floodlights are two a penny, it seems; lush championship golf courses are maintained in the desert by thousands of gallons of desalinated sea water and the lavish domes of the club house at the Emirates club, where the Desert Classic is now established on the PGA circuit, conjures half-remembered lines:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure dome decree. . .

The pristine skyscrapers of Dubai come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Hotels, mosques and office blocks have soared into existence in recent years in what must seem like a veritable playground for modern architects. Their creations of steel, glass and marble flaunt the area's prosperity alongside a creek filled with fine old Arab dhows which recall the days when fish and perfume were more important than petrol and cricket was strictly for the English.

It is multinational now, with a vengeance, as was the team which represented the Emirates at the last World Cup. The recent opening of an indoor cricket centre in Dubai should further enhance Arab participation, however, and there are dishdashas and gutras (white robes and headcloths) as well as saris in evidence in the crowds at Sharjah. The four teams in the present tournament are all staying in the same Dubai hotel, but half an hour in a coach or taxi (in the less than certain event of the driver knowing the way) takes them to a ground where all tickets were sold well before the start of yesterday's India v Pakistan match. Sharjah may be a stricter, soberer, less spectacular place than its neighbouring Emirate, but the cricket stadium has put it on the map and one gets the feeling that there is room for a fair bit of growth yet.


Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:33