x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Die-hards love their cricket

Sending in a picture request for an assignment which begins at 10.40pm is certainly not the way to win friends and influence people in the photography department. "It is no problem," stressed Jeffrey Biteng, the photographer who had been dealt the short-straw to cover late-night cricket - hardly his favourite sport at the best of times - amazingly convincingly. The fact the journey from his home in Dubai to the Sharjah Cricket Stadium "only" took an hour hardly eased my guilt.

But this is not one to be missed. After all, it is the, ahem, Sharjah Ramadan Twenty20 Rufi Cup. OK, it may not sound too flash - its title is not as catchy as 'Indian Premier League' and it is a world away from the Stanford Twenty20 for $20 million (Dh73.4m). But this tournament perfectly personifies the vibrancy of the amateur game in the Emirates and also gives a heartwarming sense of community during Ramadan.

While the majority of the UAE's fasting thousands contemplate heading to bed, the cricket-lovers provide further evidence of their phenomenal thirst for the gentleman's game. The Sharjah Stadium will play host to two matches per night for the duration of the holy month. Keeping to the schedule means the second games start at 10.40pm, and finish close to 2am. All the 32 sides in the event are made up mainly of amateur players who have to work early the following morning, and most of whom will be fasting.

One of the sides playing the late game on Tuesday night, Rufi Real Estate, included in their ranks Faisal Iqbal, a batsman who has played 21 Test matches for Pakistan and the nephew of the legend Javed Miandad. He has been flown in from Karachi especially for this cricket carnival, and his presence meant more than a hundred extra spectators were in attendance. The majority stayed until the game's conclusion at precisely 1.48am.

When he walked out to bat at No3 for Rufi, the assembled throng, many who wore replica Pakistan shirts, were anticipating a masterclass. He was joined at the crease almost straight away by Azam Khan after Adil Mirza, a burly opening batsman, ran himself out. Azam did not exactly look in awe of his illustrious batting partner - but it must still have been clear to him who everyone had come to watch.

It brought to mind the story of when Geoffrey Boycott went to the wicket in a Test match with a young, aspiring debutant. When asked by the newcomer if he could offer any advice on how to cope with what was to come, Boycott was said to have replied: "Aye, lad - just don't run me out." Cue the inevitable. Iqbal scratched around for four runs, all in singles, against the enthusiastic, part-time bowlers of Al Barakah - then was promptly sawn-off by a dicey call from his batting partner.

Iqbal, 26, has inherited his uncle's famously confrontational attitude, and a major scene looked to be brewing. He ran his hand through his newly-cropped hair twice, stared at his partner in exasperated fashion and that was about the extent of it. "The big man has gone - we should stop scoring now!" complained one of the supporters, lightheartedly urging the scorer to lay down his biro in protest.

Rufi looked as though they had been coached on their running between the wickets by Inzamam-ul-Haq - and perhaps the Multan Master also aided them with their fielding drills. Woeful just does not cover it. They shelled nine catches between them - including two which were palmed over the ropes for six. One such instance prompted a member of the vocal Barakah cheer-squad to shout "Bring back the rubbish fielder", after he was moved from the firing line.

It was said in jest, which the fielder took in good heart. The only hint that anyone had missed their bed-time arrived when all hell broke loose on the final ball of the night. Barakah's ninth-wicket pair required three runs from the final two balls to seal an improbable win. They scampered through for two - yet looked to have been beaten by a brilliant throw from the deep. The wicketkeeper's appeal when he took the bails off was turned-down by the sqg umpire, prompting uproar.

The keeper and some of his colleagues confronted the umpire, amazed that the decision had not gone their way. Yet, with their backs turned, the two batsmen sneaked through for the winning run. pradley@thenational.ae