Cricket: Best-kept strip of the desert awaits England

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The Independent Online
Question: when are several acres of lush green grass in a desert not an oasis? Answer: when they are a cricket pitch in Sharjah. Derek Pringle ignores the camels and the sand dunes, and instead admires the ground where England, along with India, Pakistan and the West Indies, will contest the Akai-Singer Champions' Cup.

Sharjah is not a place to wander around without sunglasses. For one thing, the glare from the scorched, dusty surrounds of Dubai's less glitzy neighbour tends to leave you with a permanent squint.

Turn the right corner, however, or follow the roars on a big match day, and the eyes widen in amazement as you happen upon one of the best-kept cricket stadiums outside NW8. A place, incredibly, that has held more limited-over internationals than any other ground in world cricket.

The CBFS ground, the initials stand for Cricketers' Benefit Fund Series, was set up in 1981 by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the son of a wealthy Arab sheikh. Having been educated in Pakistan during the 1950s, Bukhatir - who had fallen in love with the game - found he missed it terribly once he had returned home to manage the family fortune.

With a burgeoning immigrant population from the Asian subcontinent settling in the Emirates area during the 1970s, Bukhatir saw an opportunity for cricket.

Knowing that Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans are all mad about cricket, the stadium, sporting an artificial pitch, was finished in 1981, indulging as Bukhatir admitted: "His passion and theirs."

This passion also included a benefit fund - over $4m (pounds 2.42m) has been donated since the fund's inception in 1981 - for Indians, Pakistanis and the occasional West Indian Test player. A cross-section borne out by this year's beneficiaries who are Asif Mujtaba and Saleem Altaf from Pakistan; Ashok Mankad, Dilip Doshi and GS Ramchand from India, and the West Indies' Richie Richardson.

Early skirmishes, however, while thrilling for the cricket-starved crowd, were more like exhibition matches, and Bukhatir knew that without a proper turf square the venue would never be taken seriously.

It would be costly, though, for the ground consumes thousands of gallons of precious and expensive desalinated water every day. But as is the norm in this dry land, where there is an oil well there is usually a way, and what has stood since 1984 is a venue with one of the best batting tracks around.

Indeed, if any greater testament were needed, the opening game here between England and India tomorrow will be the 119th one-day international to be played. Not bad for a country that has only once qualified for the World Cup.

Naturally, the majority of games here have involved India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Even so, some illustrious careers have been kick-started out on this ground in the desert, and in 1985, your correspondent remembers facing a tall gangling 18-year-old fast bowler called Wasim Akram. By coincidence, Wasim's new ball partner Waqar Younis was brought up in Sharjah, although his discovery by Imran Khan during net practice happened after he had moved back to Pakistan.

In a place where the traditional sports are falconry and camel racing, cricket has proved extremely popular. Indeed, perhaps too popular, for it was the twice-yearly tournaments in Sharjah that were first associated with the infamous and largely illegal gambling rings involving the Bombay bookmakers.

Thought to be a recent phenomenon, tongues were in fact wagging as long ago as 1986, when Javed Miandad struck the last ball of the final against their old rivals, India, for six to clinch victory for Pakistan.

The deed brought Javed instant deification in his homeland, and he became a rupee millionaire overnight. One grateful businessman, who was rumoured to have won a small fortune on the result, personally handed him a gift of several lakh (hundreds of thousands of rupees). But if the rumour- mongers have consistently failed to prove anything - the latest to have his accusations rejected being India's Manoj Prabakhar - Javed's brilliant sense of theatre has probably been damaged irretrievably.

Not so the reputation of Sharjah, where over the next 10 days Adam Hollioake's one-day specialists will have a chance of rectifying England's abysmal one-day record abroad. With $85,000 (pounds 53,000) prize-money at stake, the tournament which is played for the first time under lights is certainly worth winning.

If England do prevail, as they may very well do, let us not get embroiled in talk about winning the World Cup. That trail may tentatively begin here. At the moment though, Tipperary is closer.

Sharjah was yesterday chosen ahead of Bangladesh and the United States as venue for next year's mini World Cup tournament at a meeting of the International Cricket Council in Calcutta.

The West Indies fast bowler Curtly Ambrose has withdrawn from the forthcoming Sharjah Cup one-day tournament. Ambrose will head home from Pakistan instead of playing in the one-day series in an attempt to recover in time for the visit of England's Test side in February.

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