'It was way beyond time that we set this up’ – How Sharjah helped create Asia Cup

Abdulrahman Bukhatir recalls how cricket established itself in the Middle East via continental competition

SHARJAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Nov 20 : Crowd watching the 4th One International cricket match between Pakistan vs Sri Lanka at Sharjah Cricket Stadium in Sharjah.  ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports & Online. Story by Paul
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When the Asia Cup makes its return to Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Tuesday it will feel much like a family reunion.

Beloved relatives returning to the fold after 27 years of separation loaded with stories about all their achievements.

The first Asia Cup was staged in Sharjah in 1984. That tri-series, between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, represented the first official one-day internationals played at the new stadium in the UAE desert.

Both the competition and the venue have prospered in the time since. The success of that series consolidated a growing interest in the game among the expatriate community in the UAE. Sharjah now holds the world record for the most one-day internationals staged at a single venue.

“I felt that the with more than 1 billion people interested in cricket in the region that we needed an identity,” Abdulrahman Bukhatir, the founder of Sharjah Cricket Stadium, told The National.

“I proposed the idea of an Asia Cup to the Indian and Pakistani boards and they were enthusiastic to give this idea a shot.

“Since there were bipartisan crowds in the UAE we decided that after the success of the original Sunil Gavaskar v Javed Miandad match [an invitational fixture that launched the new ground] we would hold the first Asia Cup in Sharjah.

“[Administrators] NKP Salve and M Chinnaswamy from India, and Air Marshal Noor Khan [from Pakistan] were equally enthusiastic and thought it was way beyond time that we set this up.

“It was a huge success and set the pace for the unique and unparalleled [Cricketers Benefit Fund Series of matches in Sharjah] experiment over the next 15 years. We gave away $4 million in purses to over 100 cricketers, with no strings attached.”

UAE businessman Abdulrahman Bukhatir. Photo: Sharjah Cricket Stadium

As an Emirati businessman, Bukhatir might have seemed like an unlikely champion for cricket. But he was taken by a sport he fell for while at school in Pakistan, and went on to establish its roots in the UAE.

“I played football first, but in Karachi I was introduced to cricket by my neighbours,” he said.

“Surprisingly I found I was pretty good at it. Then one day the MCC team arrived to play and we went to watch. I was bitten by the bug.

“I came back to a UAE where cricket was a non-starter except for a couple of teams at the Royal Air Force base.

“I got a few like-minded people [together] and we started playing on matting wickets. My friends were amused by my obsession but also intrigued.”

Bukhatir passed his passion on to his sons, Waleed and Khalaf, each of whom have subsequently been involved in the running of the sport in the country.

“Football was the sport of the country when I was growing up,” Bukhatir said. “To some extent it still is, but the UAE now has a pretty decent following.

“My sons, Khalaf and Waleed, both play, which is a matter of great pride for me. It is always nice to know your legacy is in the right hands, and every time an Emirati comes to the crease I do feel vindicated.”

As anyone with any knowledge of the history of Sharjah would likely concur, Bukhatir’s two favourite members of matches at his ground were Miandad’s final-ball six off Chetan Sharma in 1986, and Sachin Tendulkar’s “Desert Storm” centuries in 1998.

Bukhatir is sure the frenzy of matches in Sharjah in the 1980s and ’90s laid the platform for the “cricketainment” on offer in tournaments like the Asia Cup and IPL today.

“We like to say it all started here in Sharjah,” he said.

“The glamour and the game came together at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. Even today that nostalgia survives and we continue to keep the Sharjah magic alive.”

It feels appropriate that the first Asia Cup fixture in Sharjah since the event last came to the city, back in 1995, will be between Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Neither was part of cricket’s elite back when the competition started 38 years ago. Afghanistan, for its part, was still decades away from having anything discernible as organised cricket at all.

And yet, when the refugee-turned-international cricket trailblazers started their journey at the turn of the century, their worth was quickly noted in Sharjah.

Bukhatir offered free use of his stadium to the Afghan national team, and it became their home in exile.

He believes that is a good example of how cricket can broaden its horizons beyond its established nations.

“As these teams mature it will automatically widen the scope of the Asia Cup,” Bukhatir said.

“Afghanistan is a great example of how a team can rise to play with the best when given the right platform and support.”

Updated: August 30, 2022, 2:54 AM