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November 21, 2020 Saturday 10:00:06 AM IST

The Desert Pitch

Sports & Games

I’m not a great fan of cricket’s Twenty20 (T20) format. I feel that these T20 leagues are not an evaluation of skill, wits, expertise but rather a four hour smash-a-thon. It is simply entertainment where cricket is a medium. It is something more than a one-night stand and less than a holiday romance.

Cricket has evolved over the times from covered pitches that helped standardise playing conditions to some extent, to the one-day game, the World Cup in 1975, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) with coloured clothing, floodlights, white ball, use of effects microphones, on-screen TV graphics grabbed people’s interests. The WSC revolutionised TV coverage, brought more money , cricketers turned full-time professionals, placing greater emphasis on fitness and protective helmets for batsmen became the norm.

Newer Technologies

The last decade saw changing technology used in cricket. It started off with ball-tracking technology, the Hawk Eye system was first used as the Decision Review System (DRS) on a trial basis in 2008-09 to refer decisions to a third umpire over LBW decisions, to decide if the ball pitched in line, hit the batsman's leg in line and whether it would have hit the stumps. The Snickometer or ‘Snicko’ and Hot Spot were integrated to create the latest version of DRS.

And then the T20 came!  What began as a desperate move by the England and Wales Cricket Board, has taken over the game. The idea was to attract a younger audience and stem a serious decline in crowd numbers for the longer version. Cricket was altered significantly with fielding restrictions, batting and bowling powerplays, the ‘free-hit’ for overstepping…it was a departure from 'normal' cricket, with batsmen coming off a bench rather than out of a pavilion, emerging to the sound of loud music and cheerleaders adding to the glitz.

Today, almost every country has their own T20 league. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is the biggest and best organised of them all started in 2007. This time UAE is hosting it.

Cricket in the desert

Initially, the plan was to host just one exhibition match in Sharjah. Way back in 1981 the now Sharjah Cricket Stadium was a barren piece of land, with a concrete pitch. A benefit match for Pakistan legends Hanif Mohammad Asif Iqbal was planned. Iqbal was assigned the task to get the Indian and Pakistan teams on board in a one-day match featuring Gavaskar’s XI and Miandad’s XI.

  Iqbal contacted Madhav Mantri, former Test cricketer and Gavaskar’s uncle, and pitched this idea. Mantri promised to help. Eventually the match was held and Miandad’s XI won. Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the chief patron of the one-off match handed over cheques worth $50,000 to Hanif Mohammed, Iqbal and $20,000 as a token of appreciation to Mantri.

And beneficiary matches became an annual event giving birth to Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS).  In no time, there was a full-fledged stadium in the middle of a desert, one that found a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most ODIs in a single venue.

Vengsarkar Deported

In 1982, Indians (Sunil Gavaskar’s XI) were to play Pakistanis (Intikhab Alam’s XI) as part of the CBFS. It was a benefit game for veteran cricketers Subhash Gupte, Nazar Mohammed, Intikhab Alam and surprisingly Gavaskar.

 Indian cricketers and Bollywood stars landed in Dubai. Cricketers those days were not superstars like today. Immigration officials allowed the film stars to jump the queue, which upset the cricketers. A young Dilip Vengsarkar protested. The officials took exception to his  remarks, refused entry and deported to Mumbai.  K R Wadhwaney in Indian Cricket Controversies wrote that Vengsarkar made an observation, which should have been laughed at; probably a joke with a touch of sarcasm. None of his team members stood by him.

Ironically, spinner Dilip Doshi was also on this flight, on a business tour.  He was inducted and played in borrowed gear, picked up four wickets, guided his team to victory, and became Man of the Match.

Since that first game, Sharjah turned into a perpetual source of glamour, cash and controversies. Many like Doshi did not approve of it. He wrote in Spin Punch, his autobiography, that organisers laid out fabulous hospitality with lavish gifts thrown in and that senior players should take a call on what to accept and what to turn down.

The annual Sharjah series almost always featured either India or Pakistan or both - understandable, given the country’s vast expat population. Memories of some of those matches and memorable moments are etched in the minds of every cricket lover --Javed Miandad’s last ball six to seal victory for Pakistan against India in 1986, celebrities in retro shades and sun hats, commentator Henry Blofeld’s penchant for spotting dazzling earrings in the crowd, neutral umpires – made it a cricket experience well ahead of its times.

Here’s my pick from those desert duels.

Pakistan vs. Sri Lanka (October 1999)

Chasing 197 to win Sri Lanka were in on track at 173-2 off 40 overs. However what followed in the next 45 minutes was evidence of what Pakistan bowlers could do when the ball began to reverse swing. Shoaib Malik and Wasim Akram got rid of Russell Arnold and Sanath Jayasuriya. Abdul Rassaq sliced through the middle order in an exquisite spell of bowling. In a space of 53 deliveries Lanka crashed from 177 for 5 to 196 all out in 49.1 overs with Razzaq accounting for four of the victims, three of them clean bowled. The fast bowler finished with figures of 5 for 31 and picked up the Player of the Match award.

India vs. Australia (1998)

This was the match where Sachin Tendulkar transcended from a cricketer to a demi-god. Those visuals of him hitting Shane Warne to the top of the corrugated roof of the stadium is still fresh in memory. It was the final of the Coca Cola Cup that also featured New Zealand. Aussies set India a target of 273. In an earlier match of this tournament they had set India a total of 285 which India failed to reach despite a stunning 143 by Tendulkar. This time the Master Blaster carved the Aussie bowling to score 134 off 131 balls. When he got out India needed just 25 runs from 33 balls, which were knocked off easily.  Tendulkar’s ‘Desert Storm’ is unforgettable.

India vs. Pakistan 1985

India squared up with Pakistan in the first match of the Rothmans Four Nation Cup that included England and Australia. The script went horribly wrong for the Indian batsmen as Imran Khan blasted through the top order leaving India reeling at 34 for 5. A 46-run partnership between Azharuddin and Kapil Dev took India to 125 with Imran finishing with 6 for 14. A Pakistan win was a foregone conclusion especially when they were 35 for 1 at one stage. Spinners Ravi Shastri and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan reduced Pakistan to 41 for 5. But the match was still Pakistan’s as they moved to 85 for 6. What followed was a collapse. Pakistan was bowled out for 87 giving India a memorable 38 run victory. India went on to win the cup beating Australia in the final.

Sharjah has witnessed many thrilling finishes and special performances. Afghanistan squeaking past Canada by one run in 2010, Jayasuriya’s 189 against India (2000)), Wasim Akram’s hat-tricks, Muttiah Muralitharan’s 7 for 30 against India (2000), Brian Lara’s 153 vs. Pakistan (1993) and 169 vs. Sri Lanka (1995) are some that come to mind.
Bukhatir’s Vision

Bukhatir’s vision for Sharjah unfortunately was to blend glitz and glamour to cricket. Plenty of celebrities thronged the stands for the matches there. But it wasn’t just them in the galleries. Several grainy videos and photographs will show Dawood Ibrahim, India’s most wanted terrorist, seen lapping up the fun for almost every game. There were stories then of him seen in the Indian dressing room and one that claimed that he offered every Indian player a Toyota car if they won.

Everything turned topsy-turvy 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. Then, 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 prohibited BCCI to send its team to non-regular venues for at least three years.
Lost Glitter

Though Bukhatir tried to mend things by setting up a committee to look into allegations of fixing, the damage had been done. Sharjah was condemned as a venue where ‘everything evil’ happened. Between April 2003 and February 2010, the venue didn’t get to host a single top flight ODI.  The stadium fell into decay. Cricket picked up in other parts of the UAE with new stadiums coming up in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Sharjah did return to the fold once Pakistan made UAE their base. But the jewel had lost its glitter. And now the IPL, a part of which was played in the UAE in 2014, returned for a full version in 2020.

IPL is a gilt-edged voluntary retirement scheme for seniors. For promising youngsters it has done more harm than good to their cricketing skill sets other than making them rich.  By bowling four tidy overs or batting a few more you are hailed a champion. Leagues such as these are like money-fuelled monsters that has upturned a value system of a beautiful game. And the game moving to the deserts the betting, match-fixing syndicate became active again. For India’s betting industry, the IPL has always been the golden goose.

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..