x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sharjah's decade of cricketing injustice

Allegations of match fixing have revived memories from 10 years ago of a scandal at one of the world's premier grounds.

For 10 years, Sharjah has lived with the stigma of an investigation by the International Cricket Council (ICC) into match-fixing across the world.

Sharjah Cricket Stadium was firmly established as the world's premier one-day international venue in the 1990s. The Sharjah Cup, which usually pitted India against Pakistan, was one of the most eagerly anticipated series of matches of the year. But when cricket was riven by match-rigging revelations in 2000, the bubble burst. Matches in Sharjah were investigated as part of the wider purge, and regular games there ceased immediately. Since then the stadium has been used for minor matches only.

Yesterday, a former coach and captain of Pakistan said the sport's latest scandal is proof that Sharjah was unfairly treated by India's government, which put it on a blacklist that also included other "non-regular venues" like Toronto and Singapore. Mudassar Nazar, now a coach at the ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai, said the fact that the latest controversy emanated from a Test at Lord's in London, the sport's spiritual home, proves that such scandals are the fault of players, not the venues.

"It has nothing to do with Sharjah. It is a global thing," he said. "Instead of targeting cricket grounds, we should be targeting the players. They should answer for their actions and come clean." Other venues were investigated during the 2000 scandal, but none suffered as much as Sharjah. Since the Indian government's order that its national team no longer play at "non-regular" venues, cricket in the Emirates has never been the same.

But cricket supporters are working to rebuild the UAE's reputation. Abdulrahman Bukhatir, who built the original Sharjah Cricket Stadium, teamed with fellow Emirati businessmen Abdulrahman Falaknaz and Khalid al Zarooni to build Dubai International Cricket Stadium, a 25,000-seat venue at Dubai Sports City. The stadium was designed to replicate the atmosphere at Sharjah, and it will play host to its first Test match when Pakistan play South Africa in November.

Now all it needs is the return of India. The game's most popular side have not played in the UAE since 2006 when they met Pakistan in the first two matches ever to be played at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. "If there was a match in Dubai between India and Pakistan, the ground would be full to the rafters," Nazar said. "If you had twice the size of the stadium you would still fill it, people would come and watch. If India toured here, it would be a total sell-out.

"Of course people are upset with what has got on in recent years, but they are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt." That was not the case in 2000, when the ICC launched in investigation into match-fixing allegations around the world. Javed Miandad, a former Pakistan coach, testified that he resigned after the 1999 Sharjah Cup because some of his players had deliberately under-performed to lose a match against England.

Not all the allegations centred on Sharjah. The former international captains, Hansie Cronje, Mohammed Azharuddin and Salim Malik, were handed life bans for their part in fixing matches all over the world - but none in Sharjah. In 2002, Lord Condon, who led the investigation and set up the ICC's Anti Corruption Unit, said he believed Sharjah was unfairly tarred. "It is a misapprehension that the focus [of his investigation] was on Sharjah," he said at the time. "It really was Sharjah who knocked on our door, asking us for help in installing security and vigilance systems.

"And it has acted swiftly in acting upon the ... recommendations, which would be followed everywhere in the world." Yet the controversy left an indelible stain. When England played at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium for the first time in February, against Pakistan, the gist of the first questions put to the players was this: "We are here in the land where match-fixing originated: does it still go on?"

Nazar's first trip to Sharjah was in 1977 with a Pakistan International Airlines team. A crowd of 3,000 watched a side that included Pakistan greats like Majid Khan and Imran Khan, and the seeds of Sharjah cricket were sown. "Quite a few people came to watch the game and I remember that myself and Majid, both scored hundreds," Nazar said. "I remember that well, because we got paid for scoring hundreds."

Nazar was also in the Pakistan line-up for Sharjah's first international match, against India in 1980. He played 18 one-day internationals there before retiring in 1989, and they were some of the most fiercely contested matches in the one-day game's history. "Sharjah Cricket Stadium became one of the best stadiums to play cricket in," Nazar said. "It was very, very daunting playing in front of those crowds, because the Indians and Pakistanis were mixed in together.

"None of us wanted to lose. Those who did not have the right temperament did not survive. I never felt under that kind of pressure anywhere else in the world." pradley@thenational.ae