Abu Dhabi and Dubai may have the modern infrastructure in the UAE, but the Sharjah Cricket Stadium has an unrivalled history and is alive and buzzing once more.
Sharjah Stadium back as oasis in the desert, just like old days
The last time that Sharjah hosted a Test match, the Waugh twins, Steve and Mark, were still a part of the Australia team. Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath were here, as well. And Waqar Younis was the captain of Pakistan.
That was in October 2002, and Hakim Jariwala was there at the stadium, sitting at his desk and jotting down every detail in a thick ledger, using colour-coded inks. He was the busiest man at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, along with the umpires, as 868 runs were scored across four days, and Pakistan lost by an innings and 20 runs.
Jariwala, lean and sprightly with an omnipresent smile, is a businessman, and to say he is a cricket enthusiast is an understatement. He has been scoring matches at Sharjah for more than 30 years, from long before the venue hosted its first international game.
"It is a challenging job," Jariwala said, "but I love it because there are a lot of benefits. You get to meet the players, take autographs and photographs with them, and sometimes you become friends."
Jariwala's involvement with cricket in the UAE started in 1980 when he became a part of Abdul Rehman Bukhatir's Sharjah Cricket Club team.
Later, he watched some of the biggest names of the game come to Sharjah for the double-wicket tournaments. Then came the Gavaskar XI vs Miandad XI festival matches, which attracted thousands of fans.
In 1981, Bukhatir established the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series to honour past and present cricketers of India and Pakistan, and that eventually led to Sharjah hosting its first one-day international in April 1984.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka were involved in that first international game at Sharjah, and the same teams are here to help restore the glory of the stadium.
Afghanistan have been using Sharjah as their home ground since the start of 2010, and they have played two ODIs here against Canada.
But no Test-playing nation has made an appearance here since Pakistan beat Zimbabwe to win the Sharjah Cup in April 2003.
With the big teams staying away, the stadium suffered from neglect. Thoughts of international cricket returning to the stadium might have seemed far-fetched, as recently as three months ago.
With Pakistan playing their "home" series against Sri Lanka here in the UAE, the Sharjah Cricket Club owners decided to make a pitch to host part of the season. Pakistan did not need much convincing to play a Test and an ODI here.
"Giving the stadium a makeover in three months was a big challenge, but everyone involved did an outstanding job," said Waleed Bukhatir, vice chairman of the club, and son of the man who brought international cricket to the UAE. "We had a deadline to make sure everything is set and we wanted to add new features so that people remember Sharjah in its glory, where everyone can enjoy and have a smile, watch the match with their families."
Eight thousand discoloured seats were changed around the ground; 500 benches were replaced in the general stands. The worn-out canopies were replaced and the fencing was upgraded.
The stadium was furnished with a new screen and scoreboard, the floodlights were upgraded and a new players' lounge and viewing area was installed.
"It's a nostalgic moment, a proud moment," said Mazhar Khan, who has been involved with cricket in the UAE for more than 35 years, first as a player and then an administrator. He is the co-ordinator of the Sharjah stadium, and has worked tirelessly over the past three months to get the stadium in shape.
Khan even fractured his foot during the overhaul, slipping from one of the steps in the stadium. But even with his plastered left leg, he was at the stadium every day, overlooking the renovation work as he walked around with a stick as an aid.
"There were some tense moments, but we have made it," he said. "With shipments coming from abroad, from the chairs to the screen, to the scoreboard, the lights … we went through a lot. But then again, we managed it and at the end of the day what is important is that everything is in place."
Sharjah may not boast the modern architecture of the stadiums in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, but what it lacks in newness it more than makes up for in history. Since 1984 it has hosted 200 ODIs, a record for a single venue that has been recognised by the editors of the Guinness World Records.
Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain, has fond memories of this "oasis in the desert", having spent many days of his early international career here.
He remembers with delight the 189 that Sanath Jayasuriya blasted against India in October 2000.
"It's fantastic playing here again," said Dilshan, who has played five ODIs in Sharjah.
"Everyone enjoys playing here. We used to play here every year and we have won a lot of tournaments on this ground and played some wonderful one-day tournaments.
"I came here as a youngster from 2000 to 2003; I was a newcomer to the Sri Lanka team. I really enjoyed playing here, especially against India and Pakistan. So this is one of the more memorable grounds for me as I started my international cricket career."
Misbah-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, has played a single ODI and two Test matches in Sharjah, both of which Pakistan lost by an innings.
"We don't have good memories of the Tests against Australia, but you always enjoy playing here because there is a lot of support for the Pakistan team," Misbah said.
"There are a lot of Pakistanis here and Pakistan have played a lot of cricket here. So it's really good to come back to Sharjah."
Pakistan have become synonymous with the ground, featuring in 108 of the 200 ODIs played in Sharjah. It became like a second home and felt like it, too, as they won 84 of those matches. They boast an overwhelming record against arch-rivals India at the venue, losing only six of the 24 matches.
India decided against coming to Sharjah after losing the Champions Trophy final against Sri Lanka by 245 runs in October 2000, and with their biggest draw unavailable, the annual tournaments gradually came to a halt.
When the match-fixing scandal swept across cricket in 2000, Sharjah suffered greatly in the fallout. A number of matches that had been played at the ground were investigated as part of the corruption purge.
However, an International Cricket Council (ICC) spokesman made it clear that stadium had never ceased to be an international venue."As far as the ICC are concerned, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium is an ongoing venue," he said.
"Cricket never stopped here. The UAE have been playing their home matches here, and it is the home ground for Afghanistan. The stadium will also host Under 19 World Cup matches next year."
The stadium did, however, make a few changes to meet ICC regulations. "The owners have been very considerate," Khan said.
"They have looked into each and every area of the requirements laid down by the ICC. We have ensured that the areas of concern, especially the players lounge and their viewing area, are totally secluded from the public. In fact, we have lost about 600 seats to ensure the players are at comfort."
Mohammed Jameel, the groundsman, has been tending to the ground since 1981 and recalls the days when the wicket was a cement one. "We have worked day and night over the last three months," the Pakistani said. "There was a lot of hard work, but this is my job, my duty.
"This stadium is very close to my heart and I can't describe my feelings seeing it back in the spotlight, alive and buzzing."
Jariwala, the scorer, once oversaw the manual operation of the scoreboard. "It needed 10 boys to operate," Jariwala said. "Now only one person is enough.
"During the days of the manual scoreboard, we would have to sit in the sun, but now we can sit in air-conditioned rooms and manage the scoreboard.
"It was really dangerous climbing those wooden ladders to reach the top of those manual scoreboards. And even during the breaks, it was virtually impossible to go for food or drinks, or even to the washrooms."
Despite all the hardships, Jariwala would not swap his job, which has allowed him to witness some historic moments, particularly Javed Miandad's last-ball six against India.
He also remembers a few faux pas in those early days. "I remember one Bangladesh match, when the plates with their players' names were not ready," he said.
"So the scoreboard did not have any names during their innings. The fans got really angry about this and started shouting. We got really scared then."
BEST MOMENTS AT SHARJAH
1986: Sharjah’s most famous moment is one of the most celebrated in Asian cricket lore. At least, it is in Pakistan. Javed Miandad won the 1986 Sharjah Cup final against India by hitting Chetan Sharma’s final ball for six. Earlier this year, 25 years on, Sharma was quoted as saying he is still haunted by the memory.
1995: Sri Lanka hit on the masterplan that eventually carried them to the World Cup title in 1996 in a Sharjah Cup match a few months earlier. It was born from necessity. West Indies had smashed 333 on the back of an exhibition by Brian Lara. In response, Sri Lanka front-loaded their order with hitters and let rip. They lost by four runs, but the method was there to last.
2002: Despite being known as a batting featherbed, Sharjah has produced results in all four of its Tests to date. When Pakistan met the all-conquering Australians in 2002, they failed to reach 60 in either innings. The Test did involve a mini-epic, though, with Matthew Hayden defying 45°C heat and a fired-up Shoaib Akhtar to make a ton.
2010: The cricket landscape has changed much in the eight years since major internationals were last played here. Remarkably, Afghanistan are now becoming a force in the game, and they are a popular home team at this ground. Last year, Mohammed Shahzad struck an unbeaten 214 as the Afghans completed the ninth-highest victory chase in first-class history in a game against Canada. – Paul Radley