How Sharjah curates cricket in the UAE

Barnaby Read 11:51 07/12/2015
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Sharjah has become an iconic home for cricket.

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.”

The Sharjah Stadium became the UAE’s first dedicated cricket stadium in 1982.

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.

“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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Raza taking positives from UAE's England Lions series defeat

Denzil Pinto 11:26 05/12/2015
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Hopeful: Ahmed Raza.

UAE captain Ahmed Raza insists there’s plenty of positives to take, despite losing the three-match practice series against the England Lions on Friday.

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Jake Ball broke UAE’s hearts with a last-ball winning boundary as England Lions warmed up for their Twenty20 series against Pakistan A, with a tense two-wicket victory.

Batting first at the ICC Academy, the UAE had posted 132 for six, aided by Gulam Shabbir’s fluent half-century. The top-order batsman struck two sixes and four boundaries in his 56-run knock which came off just 42 deliveries.

In reply, England Lions had to battle hard after being restricted to 25 for three. Surrey’s Ben Foakes hit 49 and by the time he was removed by Waheed Ahmed in the last over, England Lions were in the driving seat.

Jamie Overton levelled the scores with a single before Ball held his nerve to hit a boundary off the last delivery. It was a game that could have gone either way and Ahmed hailed his players for their character.

“It was a really close game and we played some good cricket,” said the 27-year-old spinner. “It was a really good test of our character and skill. Defending a small total is not easy. We put in a lot of effort and at times they were cruising and eventually pulled it back to a point where it was difficult to call a winner.

“Overall, I’m pleased we gave them a good contest over three games and we can take a lot from this series.”

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Ayaz Ali’s four wickets clinch Sprite Cricket Stars title

Denzil Pinto 11:12 05/12/2015
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Stars on show: Shoaib and KP.

Ayaz Ali’s four-wicket haul proved to be the difference as Rowdies were crowned Sprite Cricket Stars champions with an eight-wicket win in front of a packed house in Abu Dhabi on Friday night.

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With an estimated 10,000 people watching at Sheikh Zayed Stadium, it was certainly a vibrant atmosphere especially with former Pakistani pacer Shoaib Akhtar and batsman Kevin Pietersen showcasing their talent in an exhibition match.

That set the platform for a thrilling finale between Rowdies and Dubai Municipality. After electing to bat first in the eight-over match, Dubai Municipality had a tough time at the crease.

With Tariq Rasool out for a duck, Ali ripped into the top-order, removing Tauseef Asker (20), Umer Farooque (9), Majid Yasir (2) and Riaz Shahimders (0). It was a superb spell from Ali, who finished with figures of 4-2 as Muncipality scored 58-7. 

Chasing, Rowdies were out of the blocks fast. Zafar Iqbal was in blistering form and hit two sixes and two boundaries off nine balls, before falling to Jafar Shahabas for 26. Captain Mohammad Ijaz (6) was then sent back to the pavilion. With 18 needed from 26, Waqar Baig (15) saw them home in the fifth over to win by eight wickets.

For Ijaz, who collected the Dh50,000 prize cheque, it was a moment to savour. “This really is a dream come true. To win this tournament is a great feeling especially in front of a big crowd with Kevin Pietersen and Shoaib Akhtar. In the beginning, we didn’t let Dubai Muncipality score too much. Ayaz Ali bowled a superb spell and that set the platform for us.” 

His opposite number, Thahir Hayat was disappointed but could not fault his players. “They put us under pressure and after losing wickets, it was tough. But our players put in a lot of work to come this far and we can certainly be proud of our efforts.”

The event also saw the Sprite 24/7 Project, supported by Pietersen’s KP24 Foundation, come to close.

Pakistan were crowned champions in that tournament as sixty underprivileged children from Sri Lanka, India, Kenya and Australia showcased their talent during their 10-day trip.

For Pietersen, it was a great finish to a grand effort.

“It’s been the best week of my sporting life,” said the 35-year-old. “There were 60 kids here and if they can go back to their family and to many other people and let it have a ripple effect on the experience of what we’ve given these kids, then that is what makes me happy.”

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