IPL 2020: hunting for souvenirs and a slice of cricket outside Sharjah stadium

Fans regularly gather around the venue to collect balls that are hit over the stands

With the sun setting over Sharjah, a young boy in a red shirt, black trousers and sandals shuffles in and bowls a taped-up tennis ball in a game of car park cricket.

The batsman aims an expansive drive in the direction of a mosque that marks the offside boundary of the game, but misses.

With the light all but gone, they decide to pack up their game, and take their bats and balls home with them.

Around 50 yards away, over six lanes of traffic and a wall, another game of cricket is just about to start. One with a similar amount of spectators watching in person, albeit a rather more sizeable number via television.

A drone buzzes behind the main stand, which bears a huge sign for the passing traffic saying: “Sharjah Cricket Stadium – welcome to the home of cricket in the UAE.”

Only no-one is welcome at this moment in time. Other than the players, officials, and a select entourage, these matches are off limits, as per Covid safety measures.

And yet supporters are still managing to find ways to sate their passion for the IPL.

As the game reaches its 6pm start time, a handful of people, all wearing masks, none talking to one another, edge closer to the kerb on the pavement.

None has a view of the action inside the ground, or any clue as to what is going on in the game, yet they all have their eyes trained on the stadium.

They are all here for the same reason: to try and grab the match ball when it flies over the stands.

“We just came to collect the balls, that’s it,” says a 35-year-old art director called Mujeeb.

He has come from Dubai after his workday at his advertising agency ended, along with his brother, Moeen.

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Fastest bowlers of IPL 2020

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“There are a few players inside who we love,” Mujeeb says.

“My favourite player is Virat Kohli – he’s the master – but today Chris Gayle is here.

“If he hits outside, and I pick up the ball, that will make my IPL. If I get the ball, I will go home and work out whose shot it was – then frame it.

“I will show it to everyone, and say I have something from one of the best players in the world. It will be a great souvenir.”

The two brothers, from Mangalore in India, have some competition.

An increasing number of people are lining the pavement out the front of the ice-cream parlour and hypermarket on the opposite side of Second Industrial Street to the stadium.

This is a suitably safe distance. On the other side of the road, security guards, evenly spread along the perimeter wall of the stadium, discourage loitering, or even walking.

But, anyway, the elevation the ball requires to get from the middle and over the wall means it will likely bounce on the tarmac, then over to this side of the road.

Those waiting for that to happen are naturally socially distant. Better, that way, to make a run for it once the ball heads their way.

“In Dubai, the stadium is so big the ball will never come out,” Mujeeb says.

“I have seen so often on the television that people wait here to collect the balls. You can get a cricket ball anywhere. It will cost you Dh100, max.

“But this is a souvenir, and these are memories of them playing inside. We understand that we can’t see them live because of the corona situation.

“I’ve lived in Dubai for 11 years, but have never been inside the stadium. My brother insisted we come here.

“Somehow, we have to get the ball. We know the ground is small, and this is the area they will hit the ball. We are hoping if we can get it.”

While the majority here are men who have just finished work, there is also a young family, too.

Mother Jisha, and her two children – Mary, 13, and Paul, 7 – are holding hands together on the path.

Fair to say, this a cricket-mad family. They live in a flat a few stories up from which they have a perfect view of the ground. In the window, they have flashing fairy lights shaped in a “4” and “6”.

The family, who are originally from Kerala but have lived in Sharjah for 15 years, used to stay in a flat on the other side of the same block.

But there was no view of the ground there, so, when one became available, they moved. They now pay more rent for the privilege of a stadium view.

“My husband is very crazy for cricket,” Jisha says. “We wanted to see the stadium. You couldn’t see it from where we were before, so we changed our house. We all love cricket.”

As she is talking, husband Abey Poulose arrives back from his job in IT security, parks up, and joins the family in their mission to get the match ball.

He starts talking about his own cricket career, how he does not play so much now he has a family, and then, mid-sentence, he bolts off into the road.

His eyes are fixed on the projectile coming over the wall. He is beaten to it by the one other person vying for it – only for them to misfield, and lose a sandal in the process.

Abey profits from the bobble, proudly taking possession of it for his son.

Rather than prompting a scuffle, his competitors all grin broadly at his good luck – and ask if they can hold the ball.

He happily doles out the ball for anyone who asks. They take selfies, then hand it back.

And this is the second time this family have struck lucky. This time, they have received a ball that was hit for six by – it turns out – Shubman Gill of Kolkata Knight Riders.

Earlier in the tournament, they got one of the many AB de Villiers sent over the fence during his assault for Royal Challengers Bangalore against Kolkata.

“My dad was watching the cricket on his phone,” daughter Mary says.

“De Villiers was batting, and he was expecting the ball to come from him.

“It went viral on Instagram, and was on RCB’s official site. We never expected that to happen.

“Ten minutes after, we were on the phone to our cousins in Kerala, and they said: ‘Oh my God – he’s gone viral.’ We thought he was joking. We were very happy.”

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