Sharjah still plays well as India's home away from home when it comes to big-time cricket, but the commercial overtones were in overdrive.
No need for rose-coloured glasses when Sharjah Cricket Stadium hosts IPL
Nice of India to look in on Sharjah again after all this time. Turns out it is not so bad after all, is it? Don’t stay away so long next time. Certainly not for 14 years, anyway.
This place invented cricket like this – heady south Asian glamour in the stands, mixed with the subcontinent’s favourite sport on the field.
In the heyday of the Sharjah Cup, back in the mid-1980s, cricket was the only show in this particular desert town.
And so it was again, with every seat sold and supporters seated double-banked on the bleachers for the city’s Indian Premier League (IPL) opener.
The old series was set up with the expressed intention of lining the pockets of poorly remunerated cricketers.
Although it often feels like India’s flagship Twenty20 competition is designed to make rich players richer, the same follows. The IPL really is just the spirit of the Sharjah Cup updated, repackaged and rebranded.
“We got used to it,” Mazhar Khan, the man who has basically run cricket in this emirate for years, said of the good old days.
“Every six months there used to be cricket here and it was the same old excitement all the time. But I think after a gap, this is a totally different feeling.”
Of course, it looks a whole lot different now, too. The cricket of Sharjah’s pomp was played with a red ball, in crisp whites gloriously unsullied by vulgar commerce. Now, it seems impossible to move without being assailed by some logo or slogan.
Most of the time, it feels as though the IPL will drown in its own self-importance at any moment. But this league has not reinvented the wheel – it just sold its image rights.
“It has been a long time since we had this much branding in this stadium,” Mazhar said.
So much so that it would have been no surprise had the stadium chickens been sent out to pose in the outfield during a strategic time-out, and spelled out “Pepsi” in front of the spider-cam.
It would be wrong to suggest this was the first time since the slow demise of top-flight international cricket here that this ground had seen such a frenzy.
Pakistan have filled this ground in the meantime for international matches.
And their supporters were even outnumbered when Afghanistan’s cricket clan arrived uproariously and en masse for their first one-day international a couple of years back.
Even the chants of “R-C-B” (and the rather more manufactured “D-D-D” for the Daredevils) scan in exactly the same way as does “Af-ri-di”.
Royal Challengers Bangalore against Delhi Daredevils in Sharjah Cricket Stadium’s first dalliance with the IPL did have an entirely different ambience to those recent internationals, though.
When Afghanistan played Pakistan here in 2012, for example, the white of the salwar kameez-clad Pathan supporters dominated the backdrop.
This time around, the stands were riotously coloured.
And it seemed like anyone who was anyone was wearing the red of the Royal Challengers. Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli sell a lot of shirts, clearly. RCB’s sponsors must regard them as a shrewd investment, no matter that they cost top dollar.
Even if Delhi’s innings, in particular, was a relative grind, by Twenty20 standards, this was also Sharjah cricket in fast-forward.
When, in 1986, Javed Miandad hit Chetan Sharma for a six that still reverberates in Indo-Pak cricket lore, it was seen as a feat of remarkable strength.
Now, even the diminutive wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel can chip the ball into the adjacent road without even middling it properly.
And they do not even call them sixes anymore, either. Not in the IPL, anyway.
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