Column | Charm of Indo-Pak clashes in UAE

Hardik Pandya
Hardik Pandya's all-round show helped India edge Pakistan in their Asia Cup opener. Photo: Twitter@BCCI

The prospect of hosting a limited overs cricket matches involving top cricketers from India and Pakistan in the sand dunes of Dubai and Sharjah was the brainchild of cricket loving Sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among whom Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir was the most prominent one.

Sheikh Bukhatir set up the Cricketers Benevolent Fund Series (CBFS), which promised a handsome purse to cricketers chosen for this benefit. The popular response to the matches between “Gavaskar XI” and “Miandad XI” gave the organisers the confidence to try their hand at bigger events. It was from this seed that the institution of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) and Asia Cup grew out within a few years.

India’s victory in the 1983 World Cup gave a huge fillip to the game in our country. This win also served to popularise limited overs matches which had been treated as a type of “pyjama cricket” till then. Top cricketers who had scoffed at the prospect of playing these games suddenly started making a beeline for taking part in limited overs matches once they realised the spike in its popularity. The wide following for the game among the expatriate Indian and Pakistanis in the UAE made the idea of hosting a championship there an attractive one for both cricketers and the organisers.

It was against this background that the newly formed ACC decided to host the first-ever Asia Cup at Sharjah, the UAE, in April 1984. This edition of the championship was sponsored by Rothmans, a leading cigarette brand. India won the inaugural Asia Cup, outclassing Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The significant factor of the Indian victory was that it was achieved under the captaincy of Sunil Gavaskar, who was leading the side in the absence of Kapil Dev, the regular skipper. Kapil had replaced Gavaskar as captain of the national side following the tour of Pakistan in 1982-83, where the hosts drubbed the visitors 3-0. Kapil soon made his mark by leading the side with lean and enthusiasm during the tour of the West Indies that followed. He then proceeded to achieve the “impossible” by surprising the mighty Windies twice, bringing the World Cup to India.

Clive Lloyd, who was leading West Indies then, swore revenge when his side landed in India for a six-Test series and five One-Day Internationals. And his side proceeded to do a complete demolition work defeating the Indians 3-0 and 5-0 in Tests and ODIs, respectively.

Kapil, who had bowled brilliantly in the series, was laid low with injury to the ligaments of the knee joint towards its end and proceeded to the USA for a reparative surgery. It was in these circumstances that the selectors decided to bring Gavaskar back as the captain of the national side for taking part in the first-ever Asia Cup. The success achieved by India in Asia Cup helped Gavaskar stake his claim for captaincy and when the 1984-85 season started, he was reinstated as skipper.

 Indo-Pak fans
The Indo-Pak match promises to be a treat for the fans. File photo: IANS

India were not tested at all during this championship which took place in a round-robin format with all three teams playing against each other. India won both their games, while Pakistan failed to win even one. Sri Lanka, which defeated Pakistan, were adjudged the runners-up. The hero for India was Surinder Khanna, a wicket-keeper batsman who played for Delhi in Ranji Trophy. Pakistan side was seriously handicapped by the absence of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, their two senior players.

The successful conduct of the Asia Cup led to Sharjah emerging as a centre for hosting limited overs championships involving top sides in the world. Rothmans Cup, which was held in March 1985, wherein four teams including India and Pakistan took part, was the next major tournament played here. India and Pakistan had met in the final of the World Championship for Cricket held in Australia, where the former had recorded a comfortable eight-wicket win.

But when the two sides met at Sharjah a couple of weeks later, India were in for a shock as Imran bowled a deadly spell to dismiss them for a paltry total of 125. But India struck back strongly to restrict Pakistan to 87, thus winning the match by 38 runs.

India’s winning streak at Sharjah was broken by Pakistan during the Australasia Cup held in November, 1985. In a match that went down to the wire, Miandad guided Pakistan to an incriedible victory by depositing a full toss sent down by Chetan Sharma over the midwicket fence for a six off the last ball.

This defeat shook India badly as they had held the upper hand during most part of the game but were pipped at the post by an inspired Miandad. The psychological impact gained by Pakistan by this win was such that it gave them a distinct edge whenever the two sides met at this venue after this game.

This advantage was evident in the manner with which Pakistan lorded over India during the Sharjah Cup held in April, 1987. India had defeated England and Australia and looked all set to win the championship. However, they lost to Pakistan by eight wickets in the last match of the tournament which was held in a round-robin format. England, who had earlier defeated Pakistan but lost to India, were crowned the champions.

Thus, it can be seen that Bukhatir and his team had mastered the art of conducting at least one tournament every year at Sharjah, with the participation of national sides from India and Pakistan. These tournaments and especially those games involving India and Pakistan brought about a huge response from the expatriates staying in the UAE.

Bukhatir was smart enough to ensure that he stayed on the right side of the cricket boards, which ensured that each board was scrambling to get chances to play at Sharjah. Cricketers were happy to play here as the proverbial red carpet was rolled out every time they came here to play a match.

Soon Bollywood stars started making appearances at the stadium when a match between India and Pakistan took place. But what was more galling for the organisers was the presence of the chieftains of certain smuggling syndicates at the venue of these matches.

This happy chemistry among players, administrators and officials was disrupted in 1991 when the tri-nation Wills Cup was held here in October, 1991. India started with a bang defeating Pakistan in the first group match by 60 runs. They continued their good form and defeated the West Indies twice thus booking a spot in the finals.

Pakistan, who had lost once to both the West Indies and India, needed to win their last match to qualify for the final. Batting first, they posted a total of 257/5 in the allotted 50 overs. India started strongly with a 124 stand for the first wicket between Ravi Shastri and Vinod Kambli and though they lost three wickets quickly after that, the match was under their control when the light started deteriorating.

Sanjay Manjrekar and Sachin Tendulkar were at the crease when the first signs of fading light became evident. India were ahead of Pakistan at this juncture and one expected an appeal against poor light from the batsmen. This did not happen and the batsmen continued batting in poor light. Finally, the game continued in semi-darkness till India’s innings ended only four runs behind the Pakistani total. This victory ensured that the clash in the final would be between India and Pakistan as wished for by the organisers.

Aaqib Javed did the star turn for Pakistan in the finals as made full use of the prevailing conditions to claim seven wickets. The Indian top order folded up and Pakistan romped home easy winners.

This defeat brought about a spate of adverse criticism against the Indian side and the organisers as well. There was no clear response from the Indian team management as to who had given directions to the batsmen at the wicket to continue batting in fading light. This added to the confusion and strengthened the impression of most of the members of the expatriate community from India that the team management was coaxed or bullied by the organisers into playing and losing so that they could facilitate the entry of Pakistan into the final.

The howls of protests that emanated from across the country prompted the BCCI officials to review their approach to matches in Sharjah, leading to India deciding to stay away from multi-nation tournaments organised there. Without the charm of India- Pakistan matches, the expatriate population from these countries lost their interest in these tournaments and they died a slow death.

International cricket returned to the UAE during the present century when Pakistan made it their home location as they could not conduct matches within their country due to internal disturbances. But the venue was shifted from Sharjah to Dubai where a new cricket stadium was built to meet the requirements specified by International Cricket Council.

Asia Cup matches, which began on Saturday, will be played at this venue, which has hosted games of the Indian Premier League (IPL) as well. The return of India- Pakistan matches will certainly excite the expatriate community, though the old fervour is unlikely to stage an immediate comeback.

The development of top-quality infrastructure in locations such as Dubai is certainly a step in the right direction as it will help improve the standard of domestic cricket played there.

Let us hope that controversies of the sort that plagued the matches at Sharjah do not reappear in Dubai as that will sound the death knell of international cricket in this region.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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