Before IPL, we had Sharjah
A general view of the Sharjah Cricket ground during the 1997 Singer Champions Trophy © Getty Images
By Madan Mohan
The other day, I noticed a telecast of a Rajasthan Royals match in the 3.00 pm slot and wondered aloud what a brilliant (sic) idea it was to play cricket in the desert in summer. I later remembered that cricket in the desert in April is nothing new and used to be a big deal for Indian and Pakistani fans. Sharjah, that is!
Yes, long before the Indian Premier League (IPL) or even Twenty20 were dreamt of, the Sharjah Cup was a tournament cricket fans from these countries anticipated eagerly. I have fond memories of Sharjah Cup from my school days and I am sure many of us growing up in the 80s or 90s do. But I would like to look at the tournament with a little more detachment now that the original Sharjah Cup has been dead and buried a long time. And consider how much has cricket really changed and how much perhaps has it remained the same since then.
The IPL is the favourite punching bag of purists, as it seems to stand for all those things that could wreck cricket forever. And in all honesty, I have indulged in some of the punching from time to time.
There are uncanny similarities between the two events. Like IPL, Sharjah Cup was also not played during any traditional cricket season [except for a winter counterpart held less frequently]. It was played in conditions that could have only been taxing for the cricketers but was ideally scheduled to cash in on summer holidays in India [and probably Pakistan as well]. This, along with the lure of Indo-Pak rivalry, probably played a big role in its popularity.
Like IPL, again, Sharjah Cup had no particular purpose in the international calendar. Most One-Day International (ODI) series were played on either side of a Test series, but Sharjah did not host Test matches at that time — that has changed now. But it never dented the enthusiasm of either the players or the spectators.
On the contrary, by the mid 90s, Sharjah Cup offered a glamorous alternative cricketing universe. Compared to India’s ugly and poorly-equipped stadia, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium looked quite beautiful, especially with the floodlights on and a glittering trophy was on offer to the winner. The player of the tournament could take home a car — a coveted prize in the pre-IPL days! According to some opinions, it made some players accessible to the underworld which may have had less desirable consequences.
While we don’t know how much truth there is to such rumours, similar ‘news’ is freely peddled about the IPL, sans much discretion.
And let’s not forget the late, lamented Tony Greig, who played doppelganger to Danny Morrison, yelling at the top of his voice to replicate football-like excitement and expertly spinning a bit of hype over what was admittedly some spectacular cricket.
On that point alone, I would have to distinguish between Sharjah Cup and IPL. The cricket on offer in the former event was generally better and produced some moments of brilliance, notably from Tendulkar in 1998, of course, but also the South Africans in 1996. But that is explained by the fact that top international teams were pitted against each other rather than domestic outfits. On the other hand, the pitch at Sharjah was a sleeping beauty and generally a high scoring affair. A place where bowlers could look forward to punishment in the heat, rather than reward… does that sound familiar?
In a nutshell, Sharjah Cup’s chief attractions were India and Pakistan and, well, the money. The desert heat was hardly worth complaining about in the face of such worthy causes. Sharjah and IPL are arguably two sides of the same coin. They represent cricket’s unquenchable thirst for moolah (usually justified as the need of the hour to hook a new audience into the game) even as it casts holier than thou condescension on other ‘impure’ games.
Sharjah Cup’s glittering days arrived at a not particularly golden end as it became an object of suspicion during the match-fixing scandal of 2000. By 2001, India had banned its team from playing at the venue and that was that. It has since had a revival as one of the ‘home’ Test and ODI venues for Pakistan.
IPL is surely riding the crest of its proverbial life cycle at the moment. Time will tell us how its tryst with destiny unfolds and how it will fare in comparison to Sharjah in that regard.
(Madan Mohan is a 27-year-old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and todate, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)