Brian Viner in Dubai: How Pakistan's exiles settled into a palatial new home

The Last Word
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Swine flu has at least supplanted the Wave as the most virulent disease to come out of Mexico, it occurred to me on Thursday evening at the International Cricket Stadium in Dubai.

On the other hand, I felt an uncharacteristic affection for the Mexican Wave as it swept the marvellous new arena: any custom that gets a thousand men in jellabahs standing up and fluttering their arms, and the prospect if not the reality of His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum joining in, can only be a good thing.

The occasion was the inauguration of the world's newest and perhaps its finest purpose-built cricket stadium, followed by a Twenty20 match between Pakistan and Australia, the savoury at the end of a feast of five one-dayers in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi, and the first Twenty20 to be staged in the United Arab Emirates.

For Pakistan, however, prevented by the threat of terrorism from playing in their own country, it counted as a home series. And certainly it was hard to imagine Karachi or Lahore offering more partisan support. I was aware of only two Aussies in the watching multitude of 20,000 or so, and they were both in the Royal Box. The chant of "Pakistan Zindabad" – "Long live Pakistan" – was thunderous, and was followed as Aussie wickets began to tumble by an even more resounding chant of "Jeetay Ga Jeetay Ga, Pakistan Jeetay Ga," loosely translated as "There's only one winner here." And there was. Pakistan knocked off the Australian total of 108 all out with seven wickets and almost four overs to spare. The crowd went wild.

There are more Pakistanis in Dubai than any other nationality except Indians, hence the popularity of cricket here. As I write on Friday morning, insulated from 40C heat in room 613 of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, I can see three games unfolding in a nearby parking lot with at least as much endeavour as there was on the stadium's immaculate turf, indeed there's a bowler who seems to be swinging the ball both ways from the "Coaches Only" end. So, much as expatriate Pakistanis here lament the volatile situation at home, it has at least yielded a rare chance to offer due reverence to their heroes in the flesh. On Thursday they grabbed it in fine style, especially in the case of their No 1 hero, the all-rounder Shahid Afridi, whose stature in the eyes of Pakistanis could be likened to that of a movie star if only there were a movie star so adored.

When Afridi came on to bowl, to a mighty roar of anticipation, my neighbour Abdullah, a young merchant banker, sat forward in his seat. Now, he said, we would see something happen. Well, he must wish he could read the derivatives market as presciently, because Afridi trapped James Hopes lbw with his first ball and Andrew Symonds lbw with his second ball. David Hussey just about kept out the hat-trick ball, but succumbed in the superstar's next over, clean bowled. After two overs and one maiden Afridi's figures were 3 for 4.

Sheikh Mohammed, I think, had gone by then. Had he still been watching, he might have considered putting Afridi out to stud somewhere down the line. Cricketers will never supplant horses in the royal affections, of course, and I don't know how much of the game he understands, but he has been a conspicuous supporter of Dubai Sports City, a $4bn project which has the cricket stadium as its glittering centrepiece, and will also boast a cricket academy more sophisticated than any in the world, with clay imported from England, Australia and the sub-continent to replicate different wickets, not to mention a 60,000-capacity football stadium, a Manchester United training academy, an Ernie Els-designed golf course, and swish facilities for just about every other sport you care to mention, although they must have forgotten to show me the shove ha'penny arena. The Olympic Games in Dubai? I wouldn't bet against it.

School run is the unlikely secret behind Twenty20's full house

With half an hour to go before the Twenty20 match was due to begin in Dubai on Thursday, and with the royal party due to arrive at any minute, seats in the emirate's magnificent new cricket stadium were only about half full. They then filled up rapidly, prompting a new acquaintance, a businessman with interests in China, to recall a situation shortly before the start of the Shanghai Grand Prix two years ago, when the scantily populated stands were deemed an embarrassment in front of a global television audience, so buses were despatched to dozens of local schools. Had the television cameras closed in on the crowd, they would have revealed that it was predominantly under the age of 11.

Thanks for the camel, no thanks for the scorpion...

My driver in Dubai is Raheel, who asked me when I first climbed into his car whether I was perchance an England cricketer. While I was preening he added, "I mean from many, many, many years previously." That seemed to me at least one "many" too many. As the old Arab saying goes, he gave me a camel, but hid a scorpion in the saddle.

Comments