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Sharjah: At last, wisdom prevails

India has finally done something good for its cricketers. By refusing to go to Sharjah for the right reasons, India has begun a process which could slowly but surely see the dismantling of the desert venue and also the end of a lot of unsavoury activities which go on there.

Cricket began in Sharjah in 1981 with a match between teams led by Javed Miandad and Sunil Gavaskar. These were not official Indian or Pakistani teams. Gavaskar was an influential player at that time; Miandad wasn't all that influential but the Sharjah organisers had in Qasim Noorani, the secretary of the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series of Sharjah, the organisers, a man who had access to the corridors of power in Pakistan cricket.

Now all these gentlemen were fully aware of the factor that drives sporting contests between India and Pakistan. No matter what anyone says, what adds the spice - if you can call it that - to an India-Pakistan clash is the vicious one-upmanship that goes on out in the middle. Sometimes, even if a match is fixed, feelings do spill over. It is all about the bitterness between the two countries; Pakistan was carved out of India 50 years ago and the wounds still haven't healed. These are the only two countries on the international cricket scene with such a history between them.

This feeling has been shamelessly exploited by promoter after promoter with Sharjah showing the way. The Indian and Pakistani media are no less guilty for they accord any match between their two countries far more importance than it deserves. There is jingoism aplenty and sometimes about the only reason that either country finds for rejoicing is a victory in some pathetic one-dayer at some offshore venue. The fact that there are far graver problems at home is ignored by both countries.

After 1981, all that was needed to offer big amounts of guarantee money to the boards of India and Pakistan whose greed knows no end, invite the right people and pamper them and then look for the right time to start a tournament. The 1983 World Cup went an unusual route and the Sharjah organisers knew that they had an opening - they could invite India over and be sure of a huge crowd because every Indian in the world was deliriously happy over what had happened.

After that the gates were open. Sharjah increased its tournaments to two a year and the fact that Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992 and the UAE team, formed mostly of Pakistani expatriates, won the ICC Trophy in 1994, only added to the tournament's success. It is worthy of note that no teams other than India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand (the last named only rarely) play in Sharjah now. The other four teams are rarely seen there; they have played in the past but are now busy with the real thing - Test cricket.

The organisers' dream is always an India-Pakistan final. That ensures a full house. It ensures that media attention from both countries is focused there and it also ensures good takings from TV royalties. If either country is absent, the books sometimes don't balance. Sharjah has no raison d'etre other to make already bloated egos much bigger. Filmstars from India and Pakistan are invited and so are former cricketers. This is apparently to add to the glamour of the tournament. And a good amount of betting takes place quietly.

Sharjah is part of the UAE (see my pages on this country which are here) and though the law is pretty heavy-handed, money can be freely brought in and taken out. This encourages a good many unsavoury characters to take refuge in the UAE. And a lot of questionable money flows through. Let me leave it at that. It is pertinent to note that Asif Iqbal, the so-called convener of the CBFS, was named in the Indian report on match-fixing.

The presence of excitable Indian and Pakistani crowds means that things sometimes come close to boiling over. There have been mumblings in the crowd during many of the Sharjah tournaments but security is extremely tight and both the police and their dog squads are present in impressive numbers. One more thing which restrains a spectator from giving vent to his anger or frustration is the fact that he would be deported to his home country if he is caught disturbing the peace; the man is in Sharjah to earn a living and cannot afford to throw it all up for the sake of a few choice expletives. Hence, an uneasy peace is maintained.

The spectators at these games are not coming to see cricket. No sir, they want their team to win. They pitch in to help any which way they can; most of the time it is only by raucous cheering. If their team doesn't win, then there has to be foul play; most often it is bad play by the team concerned, but the crowd isn't interested in this. Remember the World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka? If India and Pakistan had been the teams involved there and India had been in the same situation, there would have been much more action in Calcutta that night. The rationale behind throwing India and Pakistan into all these offshore contests to match wits is built on base emotions and it is time that this was re-examined.

The fixing scandal has thus spawned one good outcome - Sharjah will be deprived of India's patronage for some time. And the interest will definitely diminish. If, as they say in the subcontinent, the masala is absent, then who wants the curry?

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