Grounds for concern over these dates in the desert
Sharjah has staged 201 one-day internationals, but how many were fixed?
This is a strange tour and no mistake. Given that the main contestants are England and Pakistan there is plenty of scope for it to become stranger yet.
From the start, the idea of international cricket being played in the United Arab Emirates seemed odd bordering on crazy. Arriving here to witness it has done nothing so far to diminish the opinion.
Of course, it could be pointed out that it is not actually a new concept. Sharjah has staged 201 one-day international matches, 63 more than any other venue in the world (the next is Sydney, which some may say is more easily associated with the game). But how many of those were fixed, between 1984 when play started there and 2003 when it was suspended after a match-rigging scandal, is still the subject of wild conjecture.
The mooted figure starts around 50 and does not stop until 198, the number that had been played before fixtures were resumed in 2010.
The return of cricket to this improbable region has gone beyond Sharjah. It now embraces two of the other seven emirates, the Big Two if you like, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There are two substantial reasons for this. First, Pakistan needed somewhere to play because international cricket ceased there after the murderous attack on the Sri Lankan team coach in Lahore in early 2009 which left seven policemen dead.
Secondly, the International Cricket Council have their headquarters in Dubai. The ICC were based in London for their entire existence from 1909, when it was known as the Imperial Cricket Conference, until 2005 by which time it had become a multi-million-pound organisation, if not quite a governing body.
Having tried and failed to be given tax breaks in England, they were offered an increasingly attractive deal by the Dubai government. In the end, there was no contest and there was always the line that Dubai was a kind of mid-point between the old cricketing strongholds – England, Australia, South Africa – as well as being much nearer the new powerhouse, India, and Asia in general.
So it came to pass that cricket in the desert has emerged in the past few years. There are state-of-the-art grounds and nets where only sand used to be. Andrew Strauss, England's captain, was not kidding when he praised the amenities.
When the site was first picked out it was a camel farm. The ICC showed off their new headquarters then and it was merely a stake in the ground which could be reached only by sandy track.
It is a tribute both to determination and mammon that it has become what it is. But to the visitor brought up with more traditional cricketing structures it remains odd.
Dubai Sports City, wherein lie the ICC's Global Cricket Academy and the Dubai International Stadium, venue for two of the three Tests, is out on a limb. Like everything else in Dubai, sport has been cordoned off in its own area. Still, at the end of a long motorway run it comes as a shock to reach this apparent sporting nirvana. The way is pointed by makeshift signs and then there it is on you, the headquarters of the International Cricket Council, the hub of a world sporting body.
There are building sites all round, with not much sign that they will be transformed in the near future. Not far beyond, the desert starts again.
England will play two of their three Test matches against Pakistan here with the third taking place in Abu Dhabi. Sharjah is not being used, still off limits in English eyes. The entire tour will be conducted in a distance of 80 miles, a little different from last winter's tour to Australia.
The pitches are an object of fascination. Nobody truly knows what they might be like, not English but not sub-continental. The soil to make them and 20 other pitches was transported from Pakistan, 390 tonnes to be precise, from Nandipur where the clay content is sufficiently high.
Both grounds have so far staged two Test matches each but can expect to host many more in the near future. It is international cricket, but not as we know it.
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