Sharjah was what it was purely because of India-Pakistan matches: Asif Iqbal

  • Success also courts a lot of negativity, is why the former Pakistan captain says the venue stopped being a premier cricket destination
Sharjah was what it was purely because of India-Pakistan matches: Asif Iqbal(TWITTER) PREMIUM
Sharjah was what it was purely because of India-Pakistan matches: Asif Iqbal(TWITTER)
Updated on Oct 22, 2021 05:17 PM IST
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BySomshuvra Laha, Kolkata

For 20 years since 1981, the only neutral venue that could host an India-Pakistan tie with more fanfare than Birmingham, Singapore and Toronto —cities which have staged this high-stakes contest—was Sharjah. What started with an exhibition tie to honour Hanif Mohammed and grew into a premier cricket destination began to go off the boil in 2001 when India pulled out of a tri-nation tournament after Delhi Police had unearthed a match-fixing scandal. It’s 2021 and the T20 World Cup has arrived in the UAE. But the clock will not turn back on Sharjah. It now lives in the shadow of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Last year, HT spoke to former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal, the man behind the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) that put Sharjah on the cricket map. Still hurt that Sharjah was proclaimed guilty without evidence, Iqbal spoke at length on the highs of Sharjah before its irreversible slide.

Excerpts:

How did the idea of hosting that exhibition match in 1981 come about?

Soon after I returned from India, I was playing for Kent. There was a tradition that if you played as a capped cricketer for 10 years, you used to get a benefit year. That benefit meant a tax free collection of funds through various auctions and selling memorabilia and things like that. So Kent had granted me that benefit year. I was also the captain of Kent that particular year. Abdulrahman Bukhatir from Sharjah, a mutual friend of former Pakistani cricketer Haseeb Ahsan, happened to be in London. Ahsan told me that there was this businessman who was keen on honouring Hanif Mohammed with a benefit purse of $ 50,000 and a match needed to be arranged in Sharjah. This was announced about three-four years earlier but Bukhatir was unable to arrange it then. Ahsan suggested, ‘why don’t you meet Bukhatir in London and see if you can organise a match in Sharjah. And since it’s your benefit also, I will speak to him to also give you a purse.’ I agreed and met Bukhatir. He said, ‘why don’t you come to Sharjah?’ “We will have a meeting, we will look at the scenario of the ground and see if you can organise a match.” This was at the end of 1980. 1981 was my benefit year.

Was it difficult to get Indian and Pakistani cricketers to agree to play?

Not really. Since I had just returned from India, being captain of the Pakistan team, I knew the boys very well…Kapil (Dev) and Sunil (Gavaskar). I spoke to Javed Miandad who was captain of Pakistan at that time. I told him, “If you can arrange 12 Pakistani players, we will call it a Javed Miandad XI.” The Indian team was in Australia at that time. Madhav Mantri (Sunil Gavaskar’s uncle) was the contact I had in my mind to speak to, which I did. He said that the team was in Australia and that he would try and contact them. “I will see what we can do,” Mantri said. So he asked me for the date. I asked, “When is the team returning?” He said end of March. I said it was a bit tricky because Sharjah gets very hot in April. I told Mantri I would get back to him. I told Mr Bukhatir. It also had to be a weekend. And weekends in UAE are Friday, not Sunday. So the date that was finally available was 1st of April.

I told Mantri and Sunil. I was in touch with Miandad, Majid Khan and other cricketers. “They said if it is about the benefit of Hanif Mohammed and you, sure. We will come.” Mr Bukhatir, who was a huge fan of Hanif Mohammed, said that “if you can organise this team, I will also contribute to your benefit at Kent with a $50,000 cheque.” That amount, at that time, was unheard of. Mantri called, saying he had spoken to Sunil and confirming they would come because it’s for a good cause. I told Mantri to be the manager and coordinate the trip. On my way back from Pakistan, I stopped at Sharjah and told Mr Bukhatir that “1st of April so far looks good. Do start preparing the ground as soon as I get confirmation from India.”

But you still didn’t have a proper cricket ground. How did that happen?

Bukhatir had taken me to a place where there was nothing but sand dunes. He pointed at those dunes and said, “Look, you can have grass all over. You can have a cement pitch and we can have a match here sometime early in 1981”. The date he was proposing was the end of March or first week of April. I think it was September or October then. I said: “How can you have a match here at the end of March or April? There is no ground, nothing!” He just smiled and said, “You leave that to me. Your responsibility is to get the two teams. And ideally there should be a team from Pakistan and a team from India.”

The idea was to call the teams Miandad XI and Gavaskar XI because this wasn’t an official tour. After everything was agreed, I went back to Sharjah around the end of January or the start of February to make sure the ground was ready and everything was in place. Many people have to be credited for the work put in. There was Qaseem Noorani who used to work for Bukhatir and loved cricket. I spent the whole of February-March liasoning with the Indian and Pakistani teams, and also making sure the ground was coming into shape. There was a boundary wall, a scaffolding. There was no stadium. The scaffolding was expected to hold maybe a 1000 people.

We weren’t expecting anything, to be honest. We thought that we would not even get more than 100-200 people. A lot of work went into bringing out a brochure that had messages from all over the world, cricketers talking about Hanif Mohammed. We also talked about getting some sponsorships and getting entrance tickets. This was the preparation that we were talking about. A lot of people working for Bukhatir were cricketers. There used to be a Bukhatir League (in Sharjah) as well. They were all helping in organising the match. There was Mazhar Khan from Hyderabad (India), Ali Anwar from Pakistan. The groundsmen had a lot of work to do, turning that sandy venue into grass.

How was the CBFS born?

The Indian team actually arrived home 2-3 days before the Sharjah match day. That was the first time international cricketers came to Sharjah. It was unthinkable that it was actually taking place. There were so many Indians, Pakistanis and Asians working in the UAE and other middle-eastern countries. All these people were starved of cricket. For these people, cricketers like Gavaskar and Kapil Dev coming to play was simply a huge deal. One night before the match, Bukhatir, Noorani and I were concerned whether we would get any people at all coming to watch. So the next morning, Noorani, I and a few others were at the ground at 6:30-7 in the morning. While we were driving to the ground, we saw lines of cars near the ground, long queues at the gates. We couldn’t believe it. We were scared the scaffolding might collapse. It was amazing. I’m absolutely sure there were more people outside than inside. That was an eye-opener.

The night of that match was the official dinner where both teams were invited. There were no celebrities then. Mr Bukhatir thanked everybody before presenting Hanif Mohammad and me with the cheques. Then he made an announcement that he wanted to thank Mr Mantri for getting this team from India. He was presented with a cheque of $20-25,000. It was an out-of-the-blue announcement. Everybody applauded. Next day the teams flew back. Before I flew back to England, I went to Bukhatir’s office to thank him. I casually mentioned to him, “Abdulrahman. I think we should do this annually. I see a huge potential here for cricket matches annually. And you can call it for the benefit of cricketers.”

Those days, retired cricketers in India and Pakistan were not living a comfortable life. I told him that he had to announce a beneficiary from India and a beneficiary from Pakistan, retired cricketers who had served for their country. Without hesitation he said, “I’m quite happy to do it but you have to organise it.” I agreed straightaway. That was the only discussion we had. There was no contract between us. That was the birth of the CBFS. This was the best possible way for me to give back to cricket, by seeing that retired cricketers shall be honoured. Not as charity but as a benefit. That was my greatest satisfaction and my greatest cricket achievement.

But why did Sharjah cop that glare in the aftermath of the 2000-01 match-fixing scandal?

Where did this happen? Who got caught where? It was in India. It was Hansie Cronje, while playing in India. The police made their case there. When that happened, there was no mention of Sharjah, there was no mention of Asif Iqbal, there was no mention of any other cricketer from any other country. After that, various allegations started surfacing. Then Sharjah’s name was taken.

Why? First of all, Sharjah started from literally nothing to becoming a venue holding the highest number of ODIs. It became the most important event. Past cricketers were being honoured. It became a success. Success also courts a lot of negativity. That is one of the reasons behind it.

The other reason is that it was an easy target. We were not an official body. CBFS was organising the event but ICC was supervising the matches. If the allegations made about Sharjah were to be true, why or how did not one of those be taken up by ICC or, for that matter, BCCI or PCB? Why didn’t one of them say these things happened and this was the person(s) responsible for it? None of that happened. Bukhatir insisted on investigating the entire matter. He appointed Clive Lloyd to head the committee to look into the matter. That committee didn’t even feel it necessary to call me. They felt there was no reason for me to be questioned. Because there was nothing. The allegation, they felt, was either out of jealousy against Bukhatir, or against CBFS or Asif Iqbal, or the fame Sharjah had attained.

Previously we used to get umpires from India and Pakistan. The concept of neutral umpiring actually started from Sharjah. The (Kerry) Packer series wasn’t recognised but Sharjah matches were recognised by the ICC. The reason I withdrew from Sharjah is that I was satisfied with what I had done. My goal was to serve retired cricketers in a way they actually deserved. After that I didn’t feel like getting involved in cricket again.

Could Sharjah be the face of UAE's cricket boom had it continued to host cricket?

Sharjah wouldn’t have been able to lead the cricket boom in the UAE. Dubai or Abu Dhabi is not really a boom. They were being used since Pakistan were unable to play at home. The significance Sharjah received was purely because of India and Pakistan coming and playing for those 20 years. The only reason behind the success of Sharjah was the cooperation between the Indian and Pakistan boards with the CBFS. I have no hesitation in saying that without their cooperation, there would have been no CBFS. Our main bread earner was India-Pakistan. I’m ever grateful to Mr Jagmohan Dalmiya and Mr Raj Singh Dungarpur from India, Khaled Mahmood and Majid Khan from Pakistan who signed a three-year contract to play regularly in Sharjah. And then WorldTel’s Mark Mascarenhas came and he completely changed the scenario.

ICC’s headquarters is in Dubai for tax purposes. It’s a different reason altogether. Dubai is a global destination, a different world. And the reason for its popularity is also the futuristic Sports City where Bukhatir had a stake. Sharjah is much smaller than Dubai. Don’t forget India and Pakistan were not playing each other bilaterally for the entire time they were playing in Sharjah. For the first time, the world saw Indian and Pakistani supporters sitting together and enjoying a match.

Do you think the essence of IPL is heavily borrowed from the brand of cricket associated with Sharjah?

Absolutely. The present cricketers and administrators should be thankful to Kerry Packer for World Series Cricket and then to Bukhatir and the CBFS for Sharjah. When we joined Packer, we were termed mercenaries, we were banned. All that is history. Whatever Kerry did, the ICC should be grateful. He opened their eyes. Night cricket, white ball, coloured clothing, the 20-30 cameras, different angles…these are what generated funds. I’m sure he didn’t make money. But what he did was he gave the cricketers the right fees they deserved. He stood by the cricketers, he took them to court and won the cases for them. That was Packer’s contribution.

Bukhatir’s contribution was the innovation of having that glamour on the field for Indian and Pakistani viewers. I used to get phone calls, asking if they could come and sit so that people from India and Pakistan could see us watching the matches. We used to call film stars and celebrities because they added colour. Legends like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, they all visited. And from Pakistan there was Mohammad Ali and all the TV stars. I used to call it the Wimbledon of cricket. It was all by design, all Bukhatir’s idea. He used to get the crew from Pakistan Television. TWI was also involved before Mascarenhas did a hell of a job for Sharjah, revolutionising TV money with advertisements.

The CBFS began with one cricketer from each country but went to become two from each. Millions of dollars were given to cricketers around the world. I think that also created a bit of jealousy in the organisers from other countries, especially the subcontinent. They said the cricket boards should get more. When we started we were not paying anything to the boards because they were not involved. But when we had to start getting permission from the board to release their players we had to pay them a small amount as a token. With time it kept increasing. Towards the end, we were paying a substantial amount to get cricket boards to send their teams.

Your best memories of Sharjah?

Obviously it has to be Miandad’s last-ball six (1986), followed by Sachin Tendulkar’s 143 against Australia in 1998 and then Aaqib Javed’s hattrick against India in 1991. That last-ball six was a crucial one-ball wonder that won a match against India. You can imagine the kind of impact it had. The crowd ran on to the ground and we were scared the players might get injured. I felt very sorry for Chetan Sharma. In 1998, I remember I was standing with Raj Singh Dungarpur when Sachin was playing. I told him that as long as Sachin is batting, India is going to win. That did happen. Sachin was awesome, it was an amazing innings.

 

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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