What’s it about Sharjah that turned a regulation cricket match into an endless carnival? This Sunday, when Shahid Afridi, celebrating his haul of five wickets and a sensational win over Sri Lanka defiantly raised his arms, he did not just declare his return to doing what he does best, he heralded the return of big-time cricket to Sharjah–a venue that has produced some of the finest and most exciting encounters in the history of the game.
Sharjah boasts a Guinness world record for hosting the maximum number of one-day internationals–200 of them. The Pak-Lanka clash on Sunday was its 201st. With his deadly knock of 75 runs setting the fabled stadium ablaze and later picking up a five-fer clinching the series for Pakistan, the Boom Boom Afridi recreated some of the magic that the Gulf emirate had produced in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Bored at one point during the second half of the match and deciding Pakistan had already lost the match, I switched channels. They were pathetically struggling to defend a humble total of 200. But when I switched back after a while I was stunned to see the Pakistanis hugging and slapping each other as they celebrated yet another implausible victory.
For most of us Indians and Pakistanis growing up in the 80s, cricket meant Sharjah and vice versa. It was Sharjah, the Mecca of cricket during those heady days, which started it all some 30 years ago. Even though I never found myself sharing the fanatic enthusiasm of my cousins and friends and fellow South Asians for the game, watching the grand spectacle of cricket in Sharjah had often been fun even for the uninitiated like me. It became something else when the encounter involved India and Pakistan.
Back home, thousands of miles away from Sharjah, watching the action on those fat television sets, we could feel the electrifying buzz and atmosphere of the stadium. It would be packed mostly with South Asians, with a sprinkling of local Arabs and whites here and there. Every ball and every stroke of the bat would be breathlessly followed and endlessly analysed by the more serious—and senior— enthusiasts of the game. We boys would however scour the audience for Bollywood superstars, glamorous, pretty faces–usually from the other side of the border–and other celebrities. You could even spot the harmless looking underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim, with gorgeous starlets lolling on his arms.
I’ve never understood the finer points of the wretched game but somehow Pakistan seemed to always win. With God on their side, as Avirook Sen puts it, and with the rapturous crowds, most of them Pakistanis and fierce looking Pathans, rooting for the men in green, the balance appeared to be tilted in favour of Pakistan. Especially on a Friday.
To most Indians, an India-Pakistan encounter on Friday appeared to be a conspiracy between the Almighty and Abdurrahman Bukhatir, the Emirati businessman who introduced the game once played in the British midlands to the arid Middle East, making Sharjah a household name in the subcontinent and in cricket playing nations around the world. Some of my countrymen would blame it on the fact that unlike the Pakistanis, our players didn’t eat beef, which seemed to explain the singular lack of pace and the fighting spirit that endured until the ball of the last over. Pakistan seemed to routinely pull off impossible feats like the way it did this week, often coming back from the brink to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as the cliche goes.
All that changed a decade ago, just as everything else has after 9/11. Haunted by the stink of betting scandals and tensions between India and Pakistan, Sharjah lost its magic. Today, driving by the Sharjah stadium, I find it hard to believe this sleepy corner of the world had once witnessed such epic battles.
For the most Indians and Pakistanis, it had never been a harmless sporting event. It was like a virtual war between the subcontinent twins fought far from home. At least, that’s what Pakistanis seemed to believe.The in-your-face religiosity and endless inshaallahs and mashaallahs and those solemn sajdahs (prostration) by Pakistani players didn’t help, often producing matching sentiments in the Indians. No wonder Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray loved to hate such encounters, promising dire consequences to those professing innocent admiration for the Pakistani side. Who said cricket is just a game?