India-Pakistan, the original desert classic
They could meet thrice in Asia Cup but nothing succeeds like a bilateral series, says Asif Iqbal.
Asif Iqbal remembers the exact moment he felt India had lost to Pakistan. This was Sharjah, 1986, the final of the Austral-Asia Cup. Needing five from two to win their first-ever ODI trophy, Pakistan had Javed Miandad at the non-striker’s end. “I was in the commentary box,” says the former Pakistan captain from London. “Tauseef Ahmed took a single and the fielder—I can’t remember who it was—missed the stumps. It was a comfortable run out. I remember telling one of the commentators that could be the bit of luck Pakistan needed.”
That fielder was Mohammad Azharuddin, who would hit the stumps nine times out of 10. But he missed from less than six feet. Next ball, Sharma got his yorker wrong and Miandad made history. Much before T20 hijacked our imagination, a last-ball six in 1986 was where one-day cricket had started getting interesting. Fear had crippled India-Pakistan rivalry till then, producing dreary Test draws in suffocating succession. Fitness wasn’t in vogue, nobody really went for those athletic drives, celebrations too weren’t as animated. Miandad changed all that with that swat over midwicket. “That six will always be remembered,” says Iqbal, the brain behind cricket in Sharjah. “There are so many matches now where we see 20-odd runs being scored in the last over, last-ball sixes being scored but none has left as big an impact as that Miandad six. ”
If there is one venue that was intrinsic to the India-Pakistan cricketing folklore, it was Sharjah. And for nearly two decades, several matches came to define the rivalry. “From 1981 till 1986 we used to win every time,” former India opener Dilip Vengsarkar told HT in 2020. “Then came the match we dismissed Pakistan for 87 (after India were all out for 125). We had just come back from Australia after winning the Benson and Hedges Cup (beating Pakistan by eight wickets). Imran got six wickets (career-best 6/14) and the Pakistanis thought they would win. They were distributing sweets,” said Vengsarkar. “The match where Miandad hit the six off the last ball, I think Pakistan didn’t look back after that.”
As with any rivalry, India-Pakistan at Sharjah gave us reasons to celebrate and criticise. But it also revelled in giving cricket a new direction when Tests weren’t taking it anywhere. It gave us characters too. Miandad was an outlier, Aaqib Javed a fresh-faced assassin with the ball, Shoaib Akhtar a rampaging force of nature. India never found much reason to smile in Sharjah but there were exceptions too. Like the Rothmans Cup final Vengsarkar mentioned. Or the Pepsi Cup in 1996 when India crossed the 300-run barrier for the first time.
Let’s also not forget the anecdotes: of hospitality boxes with Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor in attendance; Dawood Ibrahim with his personal hotline and stories of a businessman offering Toyota cars to India’s players if they won. Over time, new memories bitter and sweet have been forged at a new venue. Of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul keeling over to Shaheen Shah Afridi in the T20 World Cup opener last year; Virat Kohli trying to salvage India’s innings with a fifty but Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan making it a no-contest with 152-run opening stand.
We are back to the desert, where it all began, albeit in a different format. And for a change, there will be two India-Pakistan matches this time, if not three. Good for the fans? “It’s not,” says Iqbal. “It’s never going to compensate for a bilateral series.”