For those just coming to know the UAE as a cricketing country, perhaps after casting a gaze to see England flounder in Tests against Pakistan and then stun the hosts in the shorter formats, it may be a surprise to learn of the country’s storied history of hosting international cricket.
Long before the likes of Jos Buttler and Shahid Afridi wowed crowds in the northern Emirate, Javed Miandad and Sunil Gavaskar were fronting stellar ODIs and exhibition tournaments in the early 1980s, with Sachin Tendulkar later joining the party in the 1990s.
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Now, as then, the political instability of Pakistan meant they looked to the Gulf to play host to international cricket. In the UAE, a property magnate with a passion for the game was ready to support his nation’s favourite sport.
For Sharjah Cricket Stadium founder Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, those famous words from Field of Dreams have certainly rung true.
He built it and they have come.
Since Bukhatir threw his money behind the creation of the country’s first dedicated cricket stadium in 1982, the Sharjah ground has never looked back.
Although it has been associated with cricket’s ruinous match fixing scandals in the late 1990s – none of which have yet been proven – it has provided countless positives to both the UAE and the wider sport.
It has created an identity of its own, one that reflects a living, breathing organism with the ground operating almost like an cherished old appliance that you couldn’t possibly throw out so have to bang on the side of every now and then to kick start.
The sightscreens screech at the end of every over, the fans in the open media centre creak in exhaustion at their sweep from left to right and back, and the heaving stands bear down on players and crowds to immerse all present in a world of daring cricket. And the sport has given back.
Tendulkar’s remarkable ‘Desert Storm’ ton against Australia in 1998 will always be remembered, as will the wall of noise that those present to witness Pakistan v India in Sharjah’s halcyon days still talk about now with fervour.
Having started out hosting those Gavaskar XI vs Miandad XI Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS) matches, Sharjah now holds the record for the most ODIs at a single ground, with 219 matches held there over the course of more than three decades.
Mohammed Jameel, head curator, is a man whose character and commitment have made him part of the family of staff at the heart of Sharjah’s stadium.
Like many Pakistanis before and since, Jameel came over to the UAE in 1977 – he is still on the same working visa – to work as a foreman for Bukhatir’s property company in building the Continental Hotel (now the Radisson) before being taken on as an assistant to then chief groundsman Mohammed Basheer, who prepared the ground’s very first wicket.
It was 1982 when Sahiwal-born Jameel teamed up with Basheer at the completed stadia, with no prior knowledge of preparing cricket pitches, purely a passion for the sport and a desire to learn as the standout on his CV.
Reflecting on those early days, Jameel remembers how the pitch was purely designed to embrace those wielding the willow. “Initially, when this ground was established, it was only meant for ODI cricket,” Jameel told Sport360° in Urdu through the translation of Sharjah’s Cricket Operations Manager Ali Anwar Jafri at the end of the recently concluded Test match between Pakistan and England.
“At that time we were trying to make a batting wicket to let players score as much as possible but since Tests have started it has changed.”
Indeed, the wicket for the third Test last month provided a little bit of everything for all involved.
It spun sharply on day one before Stuart Broad and James Anderson produced a masterful spell with the ball, all in the midst of a Mohammad Hafeez century and half-centuries from James Taylor, Misbah-ul-Haq and Alastair Cook.
Pakistan’s spinners re-entered the fray in devastating fashion in the final innings, delivering the seventh positive result in eight Sharjah Tests to date. This ability to produce a victor is something Jameel holds great pride in and his passion for his work is undeniable. He also believes that his experience over the past 33 years are unrivalled across the other groundstaff in the UAE.
“In Tests, so far the performance of the Sharjah pitch is as good as any grounds in the world. I own it. Since the first day, I have taken care of it and not bothered about working 12 or 14 hours a day. It’s really hard work but I love it.
“You can’t beat experience. The groundsman of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all qualified groundsmen but they may not have as much experience as me in the local conditions.
“Mohan [Singh] in Abu Dhabi is an excellent groundsman but he has all his experience in India. Tony [Hemming] in Dubai is Australian and I have no doubt he is one of the best groundsman in the world but his work in the UAE is nothing compared to mine.”
And it is that experience that Jameel insists on using to create the best wickets possible.
“I work with my experience, not modern technology and the high end machinery,” Jameel continued.
“I use very traditional types of work and with my experience it results in the wickets we have.”
In the early days Jameel, who confusingly says he is 55 or 56, and his team produced wickets on a concrete base before shipping in clay from Pakistan to form and bind a wicket that reflected the conditions of the home country.
With clay and grass sparse in the UAE desert, they were left with little other choice but the result is a stadium staffed and purpose built for Pakistan cricket. It is no coincidence, and Jaffri explained that it has created a family culture unrivalled in the grounds of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and around the world. This family feel is highlighted by the fact Jameel’s son also works at the ground as a scorer.
— Shj Cricket Stadium (@ShjCricket) November 28, 2015
“Initially, there were about five or six people but now we have seven full-time staff doing the pitch. During matches, four more people come in to do all kinds of job around the outfield. Jameel is the only one still here from 1981,” explained Jafri.
“We haven’t fired anyone, people have either retired or gone back home. When we hire new people, we try to get those who are related in some fashion to the ground or staff from either India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka.”
Sharjah pre-dates its Dubai and Abu Dhabi siblings by 27 and 22 years respectively, in that time creating a culture and identity unlike any other in the UAE. And one of its most recognisable of traits has come directly from Jameel after he introduced goats, chickens and his own fruit and vegetable patch in his on site digs.
“When I started I didn’t think I’d be part of this history. I am very proud of this,” beamed Jameel.
“Where I come from in Pakistan it is very common to keep goats and I loved to do it here as well.”
Quirky, delightfully irreverent and steeped in tradition, Jameel and his goats sum up everything you need to know about Sharjah Stadium; the UAE’s first and foremost cricketing infrastructure.
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