Exclusive: I feel a sense of accomplishment, says Bukhatir on Asia Cup

It was Abdul Rahman Bukhatir's vision that helped UAE become one of the best cricket destinations in the world


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Abdul Rahman Bukhatir (centre) at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. (KT file)
Abdul Rahman Bukhatir (centre) at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. (KT file)

Published: Wed 24 Aug 2022, 12:27 AM

Like the spine-tingling scenes in the build up to the climax of an edge-of-the-seat thriller, cricket fans in the UAE are waiting with bated breath for a duel that stops the subcontinent.

Watching an India vs Pakistan cricket encounter live at the arena is akin to having a seat at the Maracana for a football battle between Brazil and Argentina.

It’s a rare privilege that those lucky UAE fans with match tickets can boast of as they gear up to be part of cricketing history on Sunday when the two teams lock horns in their Asia Cup Group A game in Dubai.

It’s a privilege indeed to be a cricket fan in the UAE — to be blessed with world-class stadiums that enable the country to host events like the T20 World Cup and the Asia Cup.

But how did cricket’s tryst with the desert begin?

In 1960s, an Emirati man named Abdul Rahman Bukhatir went to Karachi for higher education. But it was cricket that fascinated the young man, with the passion for the sport among the youth in Pakistan leaving lasting impact on him.

Upon his return, Bukhatir wanted to begin his own cricket revolution at home.

The visionary businessman, aided by few of his Emirati friends and expats, started local tournaments in the 1970s. He then tasted his first big success when the who’s who of the sport in India and Pakistan agreed to play an exhibiting match in the UAE in 1981.

No one could have imagined that the exhibition match between the Gavaskar XI and Miandad XI on a nondescript ground in Sharjah was the start of cricket’s glorious dance in the desert.

But that exhibition saw a crowd of eight thousand people jostling for space on temporary stands.

Buoyed by the rousing success, Bukhatir built the Sharjah Cricket Stadium which hosted the first edition of the Asia Cup — the UAE’s first official international cricket tournament — in 1984.

The Indian team celebrate with the trophy after winning the inaugural Asia Cup tournament at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in 1984. (From Khaleej Times archives)
The Indian team celebrate with the trophy after winning the inaugural Asia Cup tournament at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in 1984. (From Khaleej Times archives)

What followed next was the stuff of legends as the Sharjah Cricket Stadium went on to enter the record books for hosting the highest number of one-day internationals.

The game never looked back as Sharjah’s remarkable success sowed cricket seeds in this country. Two wonderful stadiums were built in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, giving the country the ideal settings to host the biggest tournaments in the world.

From salvaging the Covid-19 stricken Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2020 and 2021 to rescuing the Sri Lankan Cricket which failed to host the Asia Cup 2022 due to the acute economic and political crisis in the island nation, the UAE have shown incredible resilience to be the world-class solution to the biggest of crises.

In his own words, Bukhatir today feels ‘a sense of accomplishment’ after inspiring the country to dream big in cricket.

Now as the UAE is brimming with excitement for the 2022 Asia Cup (August 27-September 11) featuring India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and a Qualifier, we spoke to Bukhatir on how the sport has left an indelible mark in the desert.

Q. The Asia Cup was born in UAE all those years ago in 1984. How does it feel to see the tournament come back to the country where it all began?

It is a very good feeling. I recall the effort that went into the inaugural tournament. I had always felt that over two billion fans lived in this region and there was no trophy in their name. I made it a mission of mine to talk to the boards in India and Pakistan in person and we all agreed in 1983 that we would create a tournament that reflected our priorities and that is how it came about. Three nations played the first one in 1984, there was India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Today there are six nations taking part.

Q. In the 1980s and 1990s, you became more famous than some of the big cricket administrators of Test-playing countries because you revolutionised cricket in the desert. You brought the biggest teams, the biggest players and the biggest celebrities. How does it feel when you look back now at those golden years?

A sense of accomplishment. I think becoming famous was incidental. To me it was always cricket and its promotion. The CBFS (Cricketers Benefit Fund Series for retired international players) experiment was unique and no one has matched the $4 million that we gave away as purses with no strings attached. The presence of celebrities was a bonus and it was the glamour that galvanised Live TV and created the beginnings of what is now a billion dollar broadcast. Yes, you can say Sharjah was the spearhead of this heady sports and stars combination. I am still at the crease and am now working on a Junior CBFS scheme where young talent (in the UAE) can be harnessed and cultivated. I have also finished writing my biography and it should be out very soon.

Q. Sharjah brings back memories of classic India-Pakistan matches. Now that the two countries are not playing bilateral cricket any more (they only play in ICC events or the Asia Cups), do you think the UAE could be the perfect neutral venue for an annual series between the two countries?

It aIways has been a venue with bipartisan crowds. The rivalry is razor edged and much of that sharpness was honed on the pitches of Sharjah. If the two boards agreed and a window was available then there is no questioning the fact that there is no better third party option. It goes without saying it would be a gigantic success.

Q. Khalaf Bukhatir and Waleed Bukhatir, your sons, are carrying forward your legacy. The Sharjah stadium has been beautifully upgraded. And they have restarted the CBFS, this time to develop local cricket. You must be very proud…

There is nothing more satisfying than to pass the torch on. My sons have the same passion and what they call the magic of the Sharjah stadium endures. The boys are working on the CBFS revival as well as the Ninety-90 bash and we have many other plans. Yes, the stadium has been upgraded and we also have the distinction of a very loyal patronage...People love the Sharjah experience, a mix of history, atmosphere and intimacy that is irresistible.

Q. You also encouraged the Afghanistan cricket team when they were new in international cricket by offering them the Sharjah stadium as they were unable to play or train at home. Now they have some of the best players in the world. How happy are you to see that another Asian country is enjoying success in international cricket and that you also played a part in it?

That has been one of our major successes and we are very proud of having nurtured Afghanistan to a point where it is now capable of taking on the best. I am willing to go on record that next week their matches will be packed and they could be the surprise of the tournament.

Q. Who are your current favourite players in international cricket?

That is not a fair question because there are so many. Let me just say that anyone who has made a mark in the game and contributed tangibly to what is not just cricket but a way of life is my favourite. But I won’t duck your question. Every era has favourites and they change but at this moment while admitting there are many choices I like watching Babar Azam and Suryakumar Yadav these days, something attractive about the way they go about their business.

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