Forty years on, Bukhatir League continues to cradle UAE’s cricketers
The UAE will return to international cricket’s main stage when they open their 2015 World Cup campaign against Zimbabwe in New Zealand on February 19.
Time is ticking. Planned tours to the UK this summer and Zimbabwe later in the year look like being non-starters.
It means a training camp in Australia later in the year could be the only significant travel the national team’s player will undertake before the World Cup starts.
As such, the players aspiring to play in Australia and New Zealand are having to rely on domestic competition to hone their skills.
The country’s leading tournament, the Bukhatir League, is reaching its climax in Sharjah. And, 40 years after its inception, it has rarely been so competitive.
Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the Sharjah businessman, is known as the father of cricket in this country, and for good reason.
His home emirate became a hub for international cricket in the 1980s exclusively because of him.
He funded the construction of the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, which has since staged more one-day internationals than any other ground in the world and was recently spruced up to stage the Indian Premier League.
It was also his idea to inaugurate a series to raise money for international cricketers, back in the days when they needed the extra remuneration.
The Cricketers Benefit Fund Series developed into the Sharjah Cup, and brought with it some of the most memorable matches in the history of the one-day international format.
Domestic cricket is also covered in his fingerprints.
His 50-over league, for the country’s leading A Division sides, is regarded as the premier competition in the country.
For many years his own team, Bukhatir CC, were the most successful side in it. Many of the UAE’s 1996 World Cup squad played their domestic matches for his team.
As such, playing in the competition which bears his name carries special resonance for all the players, and not just those with a sound knowledge of UAE sports history.
“It is the oldest competition here and is organised by Bukhatir-saab,” said Ahmed Raza, the Sharjah-born spinner who plays for United Bank Limited and the UAE national team.
“He is the pioneer of cricket in the UAE, so it is the most special tournament here. I think anyone playing cricket here would know who Bukhatir is because this stadium was built by him.
“He brought international cricket to this country, he brought good cricketers here. He has done so much for this country.”
Unlike in the majority of cricket-playing nations, where domestic events are played by club sides representing geographical areas, the leading teams in the UAE are corporate sides.
Cricket-loving employers from sectors of business as diverse as banking, construction and pharmaceuticals employ players with the specific aim of improving their staff cricket team.
“We are passionate about this,” said Shiva Pagarani, the owner of the Yogi Group team.
“There is no rivalry at all. I know all the other owners and we are good pals. I just want to see cricket promoted.”
Pagarani, who is also an executive committee member of the Dubai Cricket Council, would love to win the Bukhatir League.
His team, which includes UAE players eyeing a place on the plane to the World Cup, like Swapnil Patil, Prasanth Braggs, Chirag Suri and Salman Faris, have been trying to do just that for nine years. The best they have managed so far is being beaten finalists.
“This tournament has its own essence,” Pagarani said. “Whichever teams are in the A Division, this is the biggest feather on the cap.
“For me, it is my dream to win a Bukhatir title. In my nine years playing Bukhatir, we have once been runner-up and once been knocked out in the semi-finals.”
All the teams are chasing Phoenix Medicine, the defending champions.
Danube, the building materials company, entered two sides into the pool phase, and recruited a variety of first-class players from Pakistan to aid their challenge.
“This is one of the most important leagues,” said Thompson de Silva, the manager of the Danube Lions side.
“It is a very old competition, and playing in it counts towards selection for the UAE team.
“It is the oldest, 40 years, and that means there is a lot of history for it.”
With no promise of any financial return on their outlay, the companies here pay players to play A Division cricket, which is ostensibly still an amateur pursuit.
This money goes a long way when recruiting on the subcontinent. Players of the calibre of former Pakistan Test player Hassan Raza and aspiring Pakistan internationals Zafar Gohar and Kamran Ghulam have played in this season’s Bukhatir League.
Dilhara Lokuhettige and Shehan Jayasuriya, each of whom will harbour aspirations of playing for Sri Lanka, are here, too.
“If you go back 12 years there was a team who had 12 first-class cricketers and Tanvir Mehdi who was a Pakistan international so the standard was very good then,” Ahmed Raza said.
“It has changed a little bit because players now come in from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. We don’t have two- or three-day cricket, because of the job constraints, so 50-over cricket for us in the UAE is premium cricket.
“It is like first-class cricket for us. You can’t get higher than this so all the players look to these events because not much of this cricket is played here now.”
Danube have been active in recruiting cricket players for the past two years since deciding to try to reprise 10 years of success in the country’s indoor leagues in the outdoor game.
“We started last year, won four tournaments, and have won one already this year,” de Silva said.
“There are four tournaments going on now and we are in the qualifying rounds of each.
“With corporations employing first-class players to play for them, cricket here is improving. It is very competitive now.”
Many of the players imported from the subcontinent remain here and, after four years, qualify to represent the UAE in international cricket. The national team, rightly or wrongly, has thrived because of it over the years.
“Being from India I have a preference towards India and have good contacts there, rather than other countries,” Pagarani said.
“I started picking up players from there who have played Ranji Trophy level. We have given them work here, in addition to them playing corporate cricket for us. Now we have five players in the UAE squad.”
The corporations who play A Division cricket in this country frequently recruit established players from the subcontinent to represent their teams.
Hassan Raza (Pakistan, Alubond Tigers)
Still just 32 (according to his official birth age) Raza made his Test debut for Pakistan nearly 18 years ago. He has been a regular in UAE domestic cricket, and has been in fine form with the bat for Alubond Tigers again this time around.
Dilhara Lokuhettige (Sri Lanka, Alubond Tigers)
The Sri Lanka batsman is part of a formidable batting line up also including Raza. He has played nine one-day internationals for the Sri Lankan national team, the most recent being last year, as well as two Twenty20 internationals.
Zafar Gohar (Pakistan under 19, Danube Lions)
A key part of the Pakistan side who reached the final of the Under 19 World Cup in Dubai earlier this year. A left-handed all-rounder who took three wickets in nine balls for his employers Danube in the group stage win over Cost Cutter.
Umar Akmal (Pakistan, Grand Midwest)
Seen by many as the future of Pakistan’s batting, Umar, has also kept wickets for the national team. Yet, it was his bowling which caught the eye in the Bukhatir League, as he took four wickets in Grand Midwest’s quarter-final win over UBL.
Kamran Ghulam (Pakistan under 19, Danube Lions)
The player of the tournament when Pakistan finished runners up to India in the Under 19 Asia Cup in Sharjah last winter. He was recruited by Danube having featured high up the batting averages in Pakistan’s first-class season.
The Bukhatir League provides a platform for some of the leading UAE-qualified players to test themselves alongside imported players as well as the best of the rest in the country’s cricket community.
Prasanth Braggs (Yogi Group, opening batsman)
The big-hitting Yogi Group opener may be due a recall to the UAE side, seven years after he played for them in a T20 tournament in Kuwait. His 36-ball innings of 93 against Cost Cutter included a six over the pavilion roof at Sharjah Stadium.
Ahmed Raza (UBL, slow left-armer)
The Sharjah-born UAE vice captain has long been one of the most consistent performers in A Division cricket in this country. His contribution during this Bukhatir League included five wickets against the title-chasing Danube Tigers.
Rameez Shahzad (UBL all-rounder)
His eligibility for the UAE may be in doubt, but his talent never has been. The powerful UBL batsman last represented the national team in 2008, but confusion has surrounded whether he is able to be recalled having studied abroad in the UK for years since.
Rohan Mustafa (Danube Lions, all-rounder)
Given the standard of talent Danube has imported in recruitment, the home-based players do well to shine. However, Rohan Mustafa, below, who is one of the mainstays of the UAE national team, remains a pillar of the side.
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Updated: June 23, 2014 04:00 AM