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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Dubai's chance to host India-Pakistan cricket fixture was a long time coming

Abu Dhabi announced its arrival in international cricket by hosting the arch-rivals the last time they squared off in the UAE. Kumar Shyam, who covered that series, writes how Dubai was bound to become the third emirate, after Sharjah, to host this much sought-after tie

When India take on Pakistan in the group stage of the Asia Cup on September 19, Dubai will become the third emirate to host a match between Asia’s two biggest cricket rivals.

Fans of a certain age will remember this famous rivalry being played out on a regular basis at Sharjah Cricket Stadium during the 1980s and 90s. In fact, when the UAE last hosted the continental tournament – in 1995 – Sharjah was the only world-class stadium hosting international matches in the country.

That continued to be the case for at least a few more years.

But when a match-fixing scandal swept across the sport in 2000, Sharjah suffered greatly in the fallout. Some matches that had been played at the ground were investigated as part of the corruption purge.

The Pakistan side, led by Javed Miandad, takes the field during a match between Gavaskar XI and Miandad XI at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, April 3 1981. The Cricketer Pakistan
The Pakistan side, led by Javed Miandad, takes the field during a match between Gavaskar XI and Miandad XI at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, April 3 1981. The Cricketer Pakistan

However, international cricket returned to the country in April 2006 when the state-of-the-art Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi was inaugurated – picked to host a two-match one-day international series between India and Pakistan.

The DLF Cup was thrown together for a noble cause, which was to raise funds to help victims of an earthquake that had struck the disputed territory of Kashmir the year before.

When this writer landed in the capital on the eve of the series, organisers from Abu Dhabi Cricket Council (ADCC) welcomed with beaming faces, their eyes filled with expectations that the stadium – distinct for its saucer-shaped facade – would become the next cricket hub.

One of the ADCC’s ambitions was to host a bilateral series between these arch-rivals whose boards – the BCCI and the PCB – had been in constant tussle, mirroring the often fractious relationship between their respective governments.

Indeed, there was a new energy around efforts to bring international cricket to the national capital in a big way.

UAE-based Indian entrepreneur BR Shetty, who was ADCC president at the time, waxed eloquently about the vision to serve sports and provide entertainment for all expatriates.

Indian supporters cheer for their team during the second DLF Cup game between India and Pakistan at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. AFP
Indian supporters cheer for their team during the second DLF Cup game between India and Pakistan at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. AFP

Now, cricket journalists in India are used to reaching a stadium almost two hours before the start of a game, particularly for an international, and grappling with a few thousand spectators at the gates.

But here we were, the red carpet rolled out for us that led up to the media box on the fourth floor, from where we would get a bird’s eye view of sandy flats flanking the venue on three sides and Sheikh Zayed Road running past the entrance.

Despite the weather and the hectic schedule – matches were played on back-to-back days – covering the series proved to be a wonderful experience. There were only a handful of media persons at the venue, while the two picturesque grass mounds inside the 18,000-strong stadium were easy on the eye.

The result was favourable, too. Pakistan won the first game and India fought back to level the series, so everyone went away satisfied.

Most importantly the foundation had been laid, and wherever you went, the one theme from the just-concluded action was how Abu Dhabi had now become THE destination for India-Pakistan cricket.

It only seemed logical – and still is – especially given that it remains unimaginable to hold a bilateral series between these two teams in either of their countries, for non-sporting reasons.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai once stood out, as the city was still growing to what it has become today. The National
The Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai once stood out, as the city was still growing to what it has become today. The National

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The game was also spreading to other parts of the country.

Further down Sheikh Zayed Road, Ibn Batuta Mall in Jebel Ali was receiving its final touches and getting ready for the footfall. That was on the right-hand side of the road. On the left, the only standout was a giant guitar marking Hard Rock Cafe, the world-famous franchise.

The building that housed the International Cricket Council (ICC) at the time was a few kilometres south at Thuraya Tower in Media City, also in semi-construction mode. And as Dubai grew as a city, so did the ICC.

The world’s governing body moved house when the 25,000-strong Dubai International Stadium at Sports City was pulled out of the ground in 2009.

Suddenly Sharjah’s stadium, with its 12,000 capacity, seemed small.

With Pakistan playing the bulk of their ‘home’ games in the UAE during the course of the decade past, international cricket has indeed found a home in the country - played in all three stadiums.

India, though, have yet to return to play since 2006. Which is why the Asia Cup in September – initially meant to be held in India – cannot be more important to the game and its supporters.

After Sharjah and then Abu Dhabi, Dubai now gets a chance to host a long-elusive and much-cherished fixture.