Much before the Indian Premier League or the now defunct Indian Cricket League could turn around lives of cricketers and offer them financial security, far away in the middle of a desert in Sharjah, a concept was carved out. Way back in 1981, a businessman and cricket lover, Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, put together a disparate group for a purpose that went beyond merely hosting matches. The Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) thus emerged.
Bukhatir, along with former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal, conceived the idea of setting up a fund to be distributed among former cricketers as a mark of their contribution to the game. Close to $10 million were doled out to over 200 cricketers in a span of 22 years. The fund was originally meant to benefit Indian and Pakistan cricketers only, but later it selectively felicitated cricketers from other countries as well.
“It was a great concept to care for those who served the game, and at a time when it was difficult to maintain a life after cricket, it was of great help to so many former cricketers,” Iqbal told HT from London.
From $15,000 to $25,000 then to $35,000 and later $50,000, CBFS opened its purse to cricketers till both the fund and the matches in Sharjah ceased to exist following the match-fixing scandal in 2000.
A post-mortem following the scandal led many participants to question the motive of the funding and whether the concept of CBFS was just a facade to get the boards to agree to send their top cricketers to play in Sharjah.
A BCCI functionary who held a key position in the board then told HT: “That time we all were led to believe that it was for a greater cause that India and Pakistan must play there and we didn’t have that sort of money back then. So we thought, at least the fund was benefitting our former players. We were too naive to believe that everything was above board and since there were no anti-corruption cases before that, we didn’t question the source of funds and who the contributors were. It was just a wave everybody rode.”
A former India cricketer, who was one of the beneficiaries of the CBFS in the 80s, said: “Gifts, freebies and a handsome tournament fee literally drowned the effort of at least raising a red flag on all these indulgent practices. We tend to forget where all these funds were coming from. To an extent, we were misled by the so called love and affection by the patron.”
Iqbal, however, calls it a smear campaign. “Naturally, cricket in Sharjah was getting bigger, so much so that it’s grandstanding, glamour and money almost overshadowed everything. The event had become too big for cricket. It was just out of jealousy that a lot of people tried hard to pull it down by questioning the operations, funding etc.,” he said.
“In today’s time the fund stands irrelevant because of the many leagues, and particularly IPL, which has changed players’ lives. I don’t know after cricket starts all over in Sharjah whether the fund can be resurrected? But at least it had showed the way to take care of former greats,” said Mazhar Khan, the long serving administrator of UAE cricket association and the Sharjah stadium.
The man behind the CBSF, Bukhatir himself could not be reached as he was away from the UAE for treatment.