How the inaugural edition of ILT20 tournament has brought the spotlight back to Sharjah’s robust cricket legacy

The focus is back on Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, who had fallen in love with the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ while attending BVS Parsi School in Karachi, Pakistan, many moons ago


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 15 Dec 2022, 9:46 PM

Sharjah — a Mecca for cricket in the Arabian Gulf — is back in focus, thanks to the inaugural edition of International League Twenty20 (ILT20), which will be played from January 13 to February 12 next year.

The emirate’s homegrown Sharjah Warriors (see box) is one of the six franchise teams to take part in the marquee tournament, which celebrates international, associate and UAE-based players, bringing together 84 international (including associate) stars of the game and 24 players based in the country to compete in a 34-match format in world-class cricket facilities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

The inaugural year showcases six franchise teams, including Abu Dhabi Knight Riders (Kolkata Knight Riders), Desert Vipers (Lancer Capital), Dubai Capitals (GMR), Gulf Giants (Adani Sportsline), MI Emirates (Reliance Industries), and Sharjah Warriors (Capri Global), featuring star players such as Andre Russell, Moeen Ali, Wanindu Hasaranga, Trent Boult, Sam Billings, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo, Mohammad Nabi and many others.

Time is ripe to reflect on an Emirati’s contribution to the game because he had conjured up a magic way back in 1981, when the young nation was barely 10 years old.

Javed Miandad smashed India’s pacer Chetan Sharma for a last-ball six at the Sharjah stadium in 1986
Javed Miandad smashed India’s pacer Chetan Sharma for a last-ball six at the Sharjah stadium in 1986

Abdul Rahman Bukhatir had thought of turning the somnolent and idyllic emirate of Sharjah into a Mecca for world cricket in the Arabian Gulf.

Bukhatir had fallen in love with the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ while attending BVS Parsi School in Karachi, Pakistan.

Those were the early days and few took his passion for the game seriously. Several veteran Sharjah residents recall his cricket stadium in the emirate was a concrete block and a couple of tents. A local football club’s help was enlisted to convert it into a makeshift cricket field. But Bukhatir had faith in his abilities.

Data shows Sharjah International Cricket Stadium holds the record of hosting the most number of One Day International (ODI) matches at 238.

The overall tally for a single venue for international matches is 261, including nine Tests and 14 T20Is.

It’s a staggering figure as the ground occupies an impressive third position on the list for organising the most number of international matches, where the likes of Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in Australia, ranked first and second, respectively.

Bukhatir’s vision has come to fruition as the figures speak for themselves and his acumen did get the better of England, where the game originated.

He is known as the ubiquitous ‘Mr Cricket’ in this part of the world, which never had a strong cricketing culture.

His vision was backed by persistence and an innate belief in his “networking skills and an unconditional love for the game”.

Abdul Rahman Bukhatir has been a passionate advocate of cricket in the region
Abdul Rahman Bukhatir has been a passionate advocate of cricket in the region

The affable Emirati gentleman kept on ploughing in the cash for years.

His venture did not yield profits until the mid-1990s, despite the fact that the exciting India-Pakistan ODI clashes a decade ago had eclipsed historic Ashes rivalry. The tipping point came in 1996, when the late Mark Mascarenhas of WorldTel, who had gone on to become Indian batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar’s agent, spawned a new era.

He had made a successful $12 (Dh44.08) million bid for TV rights for the 1996 ICC World Cup.

The TV rights for Sharjah games opened up a brave new world, which encouraged Bukhatir to form his own TV production company, TenSports, after the turn of the new millennium. He also owned the cable and satellite channel Taj TV, which had a Middle Eastern and Asian footprint, and cashed out of TenSports in 2010.

In retrospect, when cricket history is written, Sharjah will find a pride of place because it not only set the pace, but also started the ball rolling in 1981 with an unprecedented game between the Gavaskar XI and the Miandad XI.

Sharjah was taking the game to new frontiers, as the UAE’s expatriate South Asian population found a new indulgence overnight. There was just not enough space for these spectators.

Cricket-crazy fans would line up for hours before the toss and unfortunately, the authorities had to cordon off the stadium because there were often more people outside than the jam-packed tiers.

Rewind to April 18, 1986, when Pakistan’s middle-order batsman Javed Miandad smashed India’s pacer Chetan Sharma for a last-ball six to steer his team to victory in the Australia-Asia Cup final.

Who can forget Tendulkar’s back-to-back centuries against New Zealand and Australia in 1998 when there was a sandstorm as well as a “Sachin desert storm”?

There was not even standing room in the stadium.

Sharjah’s success story inspired today’s T20 cricket leagues.

“To have a domestic league like the ILT20 is a matter of great pride for us and we’re excited to be hosting eight matches with Sharjah Warriors as the home team,” said Mazhar Khan, General Manager of the hallowed stadium.

‘It’s time to bring the charm of Sharjah back’

Capri Global founder Rajesh Sharma goes down the memory lane as countdown to Sharjah Warriors’ campaign begins in the ILT20.

“Intense can be one way of describing it. But there are so many other emotions that flood my mind while talking about our campaign, which is going to be held at such an iconic place,” says Rajesh Sharma, founder-director of Capri Global, which secured the franchise rights for 10 years.

“Few home grounds are as significant as the Sharjah International Cricket Stadium, not just for its rich history but also for its recent past. And now the stage is set there for the world’s newest cricket carnival and the region’s first and biggest yet.”

Capri Global, India’s leading non-banking financial services company, became part of an elite club of franchise owners when they joined the six-team league. The ILT20 has emerged as the second-richest cricketing franchise league behind the Indian Premier League (IPL) even before a single ball has been bowled.

“For us, the economics of it is secondary,” says Sharma. “There cannot be a substitute for history … and the kind that Sharjah has. There are so many memories and so many big names and careers that have emerged out of this ground. And when you are aiming to fly with the kind of global aspirations we have, the ground for takeoff is equally important,” he says.

The UAE’s first franchise league

In 2017, the UAE’s first franchise league also originated from Sharjah where the T10 League was launched.

Although the tournament has since moved to Abu Dhabi, the increasingly popular concept has grown by leaps and bounds and has turned multinational in nature with frontiers opening in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Sharma is confident the team can add an important chapter in the star-studded Sharjah story.

“When the plans for ILT20 started falling in place and when players had to be drafted, I was brimming with hope already of Sharjah Warriors living up to the kind of path-breaking history its home ground has had. We can only try, but I do know that our sincere efforts and plans will come to fruition and that the audience will appreciate every match Sharjah Warriors play, home or away,” he adds.

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