Come Sunday evening, the temperatures are likely to soar at the Dubai International Stadium in United Arab Emirates (UAE) as India and Pakistan rekindle a storied rivalry that is confined to ICC events these days. While there are plenty of key match-ups and subplots to focus on in the build-up, the country hosting the game provides a fascinating backdrop to the contest. After all, UAE, and Sharjah in particular, carried a robust tradition of playing generous hosts to great Indo-Pak matches right through the 1980s and 90s.
The tumultuous, shared history of the two nations of course meant that a rivalry was in place as soon as Pakistan began its cricketing journey five years after Partition, but a key marker in the limited-over rivalry can perhaps be traced back to that warm, sultry day in Sharjah on April 18, 1986. The mention of the date alone should be enough to know that the reference is to that last-ball six by Javed Miandad off Chetan Sharma. It is a moment etched in the collective consciousness of cricket fans on both sides of the border, evoking a whole gamut of emotions ranging from joy and delirium to agony and heartbreak. As much as Indians try to forget the pain, Pakistanis are unlikely to let their neighbours off the hook.
India had won tournaments in Sharjah in 1984 and 1985, the latter soon after being champions in the seven-team World Championship of Cricket in Australia. They were also the reigning world champions but Sharjah was undoubtedly Pakistan’s den . The numbers are lopsided in Pakistan’s favour: out of the 28 ODIs that the two teams have played in UAE, Pakistan have won 19 as opposed to India’s nine. Clearly not much to rejoice but a memorable 231-run partnership between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Sachin Tendulkar in an ODI in 1996 stood out as a beacon of hope in otherwise grim times. Aside from Sidhu famously wagging his bat at a familiar foe in Aamer Sohail, it was the first instance of India breaching the 300-run barrier in ODIs – a novelty in those days. Inevitably then, the highlights footage from the match continued to be played repeatedly on Indian television screens even a decade later. The two teams are yet to play a single T20I in the gulf region.
Over the past two decades, contests between these archrivals in the UAE have dried up, owing to the cloud of match-fixing that hovered over many of the duels in the 90s. Since the start of the millennium, there have just been six matches spread over 18 years as India largely stayed away from playing cricket in the region.
But cricket in the UAE has managed to stay relevant due to timely quirks of fate with the region often lending a helping hand to both India and Pakistan in times of distress. The sizeable expatriate population from both countries in UAE has perhaps played a part in the Emirates Cricket Board’s interest whenever these teams have sought help.
While the UAE occasionally stepped in as Pakistan’s home venue through the mid-2000s, it almost became Pakistan’s permanent abode for nearly a decade from 2009 after the terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore that year. They would play in front of empty stands most of the time, but the similarity in conditions at least offered some solace when teams from outside Asia came touring. As much as it deprived youngsters of watching their heroes from close proximity, the staid surfaces played a part in Pakistan’s ascent to the top of the Test rankings under Misbah-ul-Haq’s direction.
As a semblance of normalcy returned to Pakistan over the past couple of years and teams began gradually touring the country, the assumption would have been that high-profile cricketing action in the UAE will be on the back burner for the time being.
But Covid-19 has provided another twist in the tale, compelling the Indian board to seek UAE as a venue for the IPL for two successive years now. The Pakistan Super League too started in UAE in 2016 and like IPL, this season’s competition too ended in that country. And with New Zealand and England abandoning tours of Pakistan recently, it wouldn’t be a surprise if our neighbours are forced to once again adopt the UAE as their home venue.
While that decision will be taken by Pakistan in due course, the two teams can hopefully provide a contest for the ages and offer a dash of nostalgia to justify all the hype this Sunday.
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