T20 World Cup: The football-mad son helping deliver his father’s cricket dreams in Sharjah

Khalaf Bukhatir is overseeing a World Cup at UAE’s oldest cricket venue, 40 years after his father laid the foundations

CEO of Sharjah Cricket Stadium, Khalaf Bukhatir. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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It is just over 40 years since a team unofficially representing India played one made up of leading Pakistani players in front of 8,000 people in Sharjah.

On April 3, 1981 the Sunil Gavaskar XI played the Javed Miandad XI on a grass field at the new Sharjah Cricket Stadium. The fixture – with thousands of would-be spectators left locked outside the gates - proved there was a voracious appetite amongst the subcontinental expatriate community for matches involving star players.

Cricket had long been present in the UAE. Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, an Emirati construction magnate who had fostered a love for the sport while at school in Karachi, had started a domestic league in his native Sharjah seven years earlier.

It was his idea to build his own stadium, then invite the stars of the game in Asia to come and play. The fixture became the template for the series of tournaments which made Sharjah the centre of limited-overs international cricket in the 1980s and ’90s.

Four decades on, there is a World Cup being played in the UAE, and Bukhatir’s son is in charge of operations at the country’s oldest cricket venue.

“It is a dream come true, first for my father,” said Khalaf Bukhatir, the chief executive of Sharjah Cricket.

“I am so happy for him. Whatever he has done in the UAE, bringing the game from South Asia when he was studying there, he has always shown passion for the game.

“He always had this in his mind, that one day we could have at least a mini-World Cup. Today we have the World Cup.

“It is my luck that I am working at this time. This [World Cup] is very precious. There’s nothing bigger than this.

“It is a proud moment for all of us – my father and the whole family.”

Khalaf acknowledges that following in his father’s footsteps in cricket was never a given.

While his brother Waleed did show an enthusiasm for the sport from a young age, Khalaf’s preference was more typically Emirati: he preferred football, specifically Real Madrid.

He was a regular visitor to his father’s cricket ground on non-match days. But mainly because the outfield provided a decent surface for his pick-up games of football, played using sandals for goalposts.

That all changed with one of the most celebrated Sharjah fixtures of all: the Sachin Tendulkar-inspired “Desert Storm” victory by India over a star-studded Australia in 1998.

“I used to come to the ground in the early ’90s, just to enjoy the games and eat ice cream. I wasn’t that into cricket,” Khalaf said.

“But in 1998, there was the Desert Storm match, between India and Australia. I wasn’t a fan of any specific team, but I saw the shots and the crowd and I started to get really into it.

“That match made me a big fan of cricket. From then, I started reading all about it and learning the game.

“I had been more into football, but after the Desert Storm match, I started playing and I convinced my Arab friends to come here, too.

“The weather here doesn’t make anyone want to stand in a field for a long time. But, still, we used to play some short format games and they enjoyed it. For them, it was like baseball.”

Miandad XI v Gavaskar XI in Sharjah — April 3, 1981

While the country is welcoming the world for this competition, the participation of Emiratis within the sport remains minimal.

Khalaf believes the sport needs to think differently about how to make itself appealing beyond its traditional communities, but he insists it can be done.

“It is very rare that you see Emiratis wanting to play,” he said.

“Maybe we are not putting it out there properly. The people who played with me, even though they are from big families in the UAE, they still enjoyed it. They asked if there were any leagues for them to play in.

“Cricket was always portrayed as an Asian game, a game for Indians, Pakistanis, and the English, too.

“But all these games came from abroad. We just have to learn them. They have to have small games first where they learn to love the game.”

Khalaf suggests that the fact cricket is thriving in the Emirates at all is a triumph for ambitious thinking.

“My father always thinks outside the box,” he said of the sport’s roots in Sharjah.

“He brought cricket to the desert when there was nothing here. People would say, ‘But you’re Arabs, you guys are footballers’.

“Now, I am blessed to have the World Cup here during my time.”

Updated: October 28, 2021, 3:54 AM