x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Fixing-scarred Pakistan seek new beginning where it all began, Sharjah

The host team in the UAE will be hoping to start their revival at a revamped stadium, full of 'good memories', in the third Test against Sri Lanka.

Umar Gul, centre, and his teammates will hope Pakistan emerge out of the match-fixing shadow over the next five days.
Umar Gul, centre, and his teammates will hope Pakistan emerge out of the match-fixing shadow over the next five days.

SHARJAH // As new dawns go, the setting could hardly be more appropriate. In the week in which three Pakistan cricketers face jail for being involved in corruption, the national team most affected by the scourge find themselves back in Sharjah.

When cricket was riven by the first major match-fixing scandals of 2000, Sharjah suffered what was thought to be terminal damage in the fallout.

As part of the inquiry that followed, many matches which had been played at the city's stadium were investigated.

International teams, most notably India, who were banned in 2001 by their government from playing matches there, were wary of ever returning, and top-class cricket in the emirate dried up.

It mattered little that Lord Condon, who set up the International Cricket Council's Anti Corruption Unit and led the first investigation into match-fixing, said he believed Sharjah was unfairly tarred by association.

"It is a misapprehension that the focus [of his investigation] was on Sharjah," he said in 2002. "It really was Sharjah who knocked on our door, asking us for help in installing security and vigilance systems."

It is nine years, almost to the week, since Test cricket was last played at this ground, and eight since the last one-day international involving a major nation.

In the intervening time, the Pakistan team have seemingly lurched from one crisis to the next, culminating in the convictions this week in a London court of Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif for spot-fixing. Mohammad Amir had previously pleaded guilty.

Somehow, it seems perfectly appropriate that the newly-renovated ground, and the refurbished Pakistan team should commence their new beginning together today.

It is an irony the two sets of players were doing their best to avoid yesterday.

Indeed, all talk of corruption, or anything related to the spot-fixing convictions in London was officially off-limits at the pre-match press briefing.

The message from the management is that it is time to move on. "With the passage of time Pakistan is gaining its reputation," Naushad Ali, the Pakistan team manager in the UAE, said yesterday.

"We have organised, in direction of ICC and in this particular tour, to look at security affairs and to look after anti-corruption.

"We have an organised body and a Pakistan Cricket Board body, as well. Wasim Bari is handling that and I'm sure there will be good results from that."

Anura Tennekoon, the Sri Lanka team manager, said cricket needs to deal with the threat of corruption in the most serious possible terms.

"I think any form of corruption in the game should be dealt with seriously and eradicated so that the interest in the game is sustained," Tennekoon said.

"I think if corruption is not wiped off then the followers of this beautiful game will be lost. From the point of safeguarding the game people who are playing the game as well authorities of the game should wipe out corruption."

This Test, the third of a series Sri Lanka currently trail 1-0, will be played at a spruced-up stadium.

The most notable features are new plastic seats designed for more comfort than the old wooden benches, dressing rooms which are at least twice the size of their previous incarnation, and a big-screen newly imported from China.

Some things remain the same, though.

This arena is so entrenched in Pakistan cricket lore that it did not seem odd when Misbah-ul-Haq said yesterday that he expected the wicket to play like "a normal Sharjah pitch".

The 37-year-old captain has played here twice, most recently in a one-day international eight years ago.

The hiatus, however, has not diminished what has always been a given in Sharjah, namely that conditions will be benevolent towards the batsmen. "I think it's a normal Sharjah pitch - batting friendly, not much turn and not much for fast bowlers," Misbah said.

"I think Pakistan has good memories [of Sharjah]. We've played good cricket here.

"We just want to remember what good things we are doing and want to continue doing.

"I think you always enjoy playing here because there's a lot of support for our team here traditionally. It's special to play here."