The Indian Premier League has boasted of initiating cricket’s courtship with entertainment. As Season 7 of the T20 league opens in the UAE, Bharat Sundaresan points out how the desert venue has seen it all in the 80s, the era when thrilling India-Pakistan games attracted Bollywood stars at stadiums and post-game parties.
He claims to have not followed its intricate goings-on over the years. Still, Mudassar Nazar is a self-confessed IPL admirer. On Wednesday, the star-studded cricket circus will gallop into the desert, kicking up a shimmering storm along the way. In tow will be the customary fanfare and the celebrity parade. Nazar, though, will not be among the luminaries welcoming the grand spectacle in Dubai.
The former Pakistan all-rounder instead will be at home in Manchester spending time with family. Not that he fosters any regrets of missing out on the IPL’s debut in the UAE.
“It’s not going to be anything that I haven’t seen before. The actresses, the celebrity fare, the parties. The IPL is a smart venture. But cricket and entertainment were originally wedded in Sharjah three decades ago,” he says. You can almost imagine him sporting a smirk as he launches into a ‘been-there-seen-that’ tone. Mudassar should know. He was there after all when Abdul Rahman Bukhatir orchestrated cricket’s first revolution in the Middle-East. When an ambitious businessman took the sport to a virgin land and in turn transformed it into a cricketing oasis.
Well before the IPL came Sharjah. The glitz, the glamour, the nail-biting finishes. They were all there.
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The stands were packed, adorned with passion and emotion while the stars shone bright from their privileged vantage points.
Kerry Packer may have championed a bold new era a decade earlier with his World Series Cricket and coloured-clothing-white ball gimmickry. But the subcontinent fan still remained in the dark. Packer for him belonged to another age, another hemisphere. It took Sharjah to ensure that he came up to speed even if the ball remained red and the attire white.
Bukhatir also managed another unprecedented alliance. One that would cater to Indians and Pakistanis in their respective lands with the same fervor as it would to the expats living in the UAE.
He gave them film stars and cricket stars on the same page. He gave them ‘cricketainment’. Twenty or so years later, the IPL would take it to another incomparable level.
THE SIX THAT MATTERED
And by the way, before the six-hitters, came ‘the six’. The Miandad moment. A passage of play that in many ways defined what Sharjah cricket was all about. Tension and drama both on the field and in the stands followed by a truly theatricial finish. Javed Miandad smashing Chetan Sharma’s low full-toss over the midwicket fence in fading light. An image that will remain etched in infamy, at least as far as Indian fans are concerned.
“With that six, I had taught the cricket world a lesson. That nothing was impossible. With one single blow, I ensured that batsmen after that will never think any target to be out of reach, however improbable. And you see that a lot in the IPL, where batsmen chase down 20-30 runs off the last over. It all started with that six,” says Miandad.
With the IPL going there, Sharjah might have come a full circle with cricket and glamour renewing their vows. But it is unlikely, even with the pyros and all, that the T20 spectacle will match the intensity that cricketers from India-Pakistan clashes triggered at the desert venue. Or the adoration that was bestowed upon them unconditionally by their partisan fans. Adoration that could often lead to ludicruous outcomes, as Dilip Vengsarkar recalls.
“After that match, I was told that Javed hung around in Sharjah for a few days and sold bats to close to 20 people, claiming to each that it was with that willow that he hit the famous six. That is an example of how the fans there loved us,” says Vengsarkar.
The impact of the rivalry between the two teams could often even be experienced during training sessions, says Chandrakant Pandit. “Once we were at training, and the Pakistan fans were targeting us with plastic bottles,” he recalls.
Chishty Mujahid, considered the voice of Pakistan cricket, was a regular fixture at Sharjah during the ‘80s. And he believes that the Miandad match also gave rise to a new phenomena as far as TV coverage was concerned.
“During the final moments before Javed’s six, the camera keeps panning towards these lovely ladies decked in dupattas, many of them film stars, all tense with many immersed in prayer. Ever since, it’s become common to see these praying women during close finishes in all forms of cricket, including the IPL,” he says.
FILMSTARS GET AIRTIME
In fact, Mujahid adds that it was in Sharjah that TV producers started the practice of focussing more on capturing faces in the crowd. In a way they had no choice, considering many of the enclosures seated some of the most prominent film and TV celebrities of that era, right from Bollywood biggies Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar to Pakistan’s great comedian Umar Shareef.
Not to forget Anju Mahendroo and Simi Garewal. Just like the 20-plus cameras will be fixated on Shah Rukh Khan and Priety Zinta as they turn into quasi-cheerleaders for their respective franchises over the next month and a half.
“There was one faux pas though where I was told a particular actress was in the stands, and I kept talking her up whenever the camera showed her. Five or six overs into my stint, I am told it’s the wrong person and the actress had never shown up,” says a laughing Mujahid.
Having celebrities in the stands also meant an added motivation for the men in the middle, as Mudassar recalls and reminisces about. “The celebrities were always in the top stands. The Pakistani cricketers would be attracted to the Indian actresses and vice versa. Nothing untoward happened though as far as I know,” he adds.
Former pacer Aaqib Javed might have held his own in the company of Wasim and Waqar in Sharjah, but he recalls having being pipped at the post when it came to another contest with his fellow pacers.
“There was one position in the outfield from where you could see the actresses and they could see you. We would all fight to field there but Wasim (Akram) always won.
But having those pretty faces in the stands often helped ease the tension on the field,” quips Javed.
Much like the IPL, post-match evenings weren’t spent in the confines of the hotel room ordering room-service. There were parties to attend.
And it’s at these fetes that cricketers would get to rub shoulders with the film fraternity. “They probably weren’t as organised as the IPL ones, but I got to meet my childhood heroes Naseeruddin Shah and Amitabh Bachchan and hang out with Sanjay Dutt at those parties,” says Javed.
Miandad though is quick to add that the modern-day cricket stars have drawn parity if not overtaken the film stars in terms of popularity. “Back then cricketers would wait to be introduced to these stars. These days it’s the other way around. The film stars try to piggyback on their links with cricket to gain publicity. They need us more now,” says the Pakistani legend.
Over the next month and a half, we’ll see the likes of Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha trying their best to sound clever as they discuss cricket with the likes of Ian Bishop and Danny Morrison, while trying hard not to be seen plugging their respective movies.
‘MR INDIA’ PROMOTION
Film promotions used to be a lot more subtle during Bukhatir’s reign. Mujahid remembers an India-Pakistan fare in the late-eighties, when Anil Kapoor walked into the commentary box.
“I was on air with Harsha (Bhogle) when Anil entered and I wondered what he was doing up there. Then the producer walked in and requested us to talk a bit about his upcoming movie, Mr India, whose hoarding hung on one side of the ground,” he says. “We did and Anil was very happy.”
Last year, Sony decided to expand their reach by introducing Hindi commentary to their broadcast. This concept too, believes Mujahid, could be traced back to Sharjah. Citing the plethora of Urdu and Hindi speaking viewers both in the UAE, the authorities tied up with Radio Pakistan and Hum, a local FM channel, to attract more people.
“Then they got Henry Blofeld, who would speak about earrings and fashion, attracting even more women to the grounds,” adds Mujahid.
GIFTS NOT TABOO
Back then, Sharjah also proved to be an El Dorado of sorts for cricketers from around the world. There were no dearth of benefactors or gifts while massive discounts were on offer in malls and shops. Anyway, shopping was cheaper in the UAE as compared to other cricketing outposts.
“I went to a shop with Kapil to buy suits and sarees and the guy didn’t take a single penny. We would receive gifts but there was no hanky panky involved,” says Surinder Khanna, star of the 1984 Asia Cup triumph. “We would return home with VCRs, which were a novelty then, while the West Indians would load up on their gold collection,” adds Miandad.
Unfortunately, the access that cricket in Sharjah allowed fans and ‘rich businessman’ alike to the players meant the boundary had become porous.
Those with nefarious intentions saw this as the best pathway to get closer to players. At the same time, some of the cricketers were no longer content with freebies and free dinners.
They wanted more. Greed eventually took over.
Then came the inevitable fixing scandal, slandering Sharjah’s image and turning it into a so-called betting den. Its reputation took a major hit. Just like the IPL has in recent times. Ironically, the IPL moves to Sharjah at a time when it speaks about wanting to clean its house.
Many from back them, claim the last vestiges of the 20th century to have been innocent times. Or so they perceived them to be. Mujahid for one certainly. “I now feel like an idiot when I hear about all that was happening around me. And there I was thinking of it as being the most exciting and intense cricket I ever witnessed,” he says.
As Sharjah comes a full circle, the glamour element is sure to be cranked up a few notches from two decades ago. But the desperate hope for the IPL’s stakeholders will be that the new fans’ abiding memory of their cricketers is not one of belated betrayal.