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After 3 years and memories of a lifetime, India play Pakistan today

As India and Pakistan play their T20 World Cup group league fixture here Sunday — the first time the two teams are playing in three years — the Sharjah throwback becomes relevant, for it was the starting point of the game’s most-followed cricket rivalry at a neutral venue.

India and Pakistan fans outside the cricket stadium in Dubai on the eve of the match on Saturday. (Photo: Shamik Chakrabarty)

Former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal’s mind goes back to the early 1980s. Shyam Bhatia, an Indian expat in Dubai and a cricket patron, recollects Javed Miandad’s six against Chetan Sharma. For the old-timers, an India-Pakistan match in the United Arab Emirates will always be about nostalgia, irrespective of its venue-switch from Sharjah to Dubai.

As India and Pakistan play their T20 World Cup group league fixture here Sunday — the first time the two teams are playing in three years — the Sharjah throwback becomes relevant, for it was the starting point of the game’s most-followed cricket rivalry at a neutral venue.

It were Iqbal, a former Pakistan captain, and local business magnate Abdul Rahman Bukhatir who dared to dream.

“When we started India versus Pakistan matches in Sharjah, the atmosphere was totally different. India and Pakistan supporters used to come to the ground, expats not only from the UAE but working around the Persian Gulf. And whichever team won, they would share mithai after the game. No untoward incident was ever reported,” Iqbal told The Sunday Express.

Bhatia talks about banging his new Mercedes, so unmindful was he after Miandad’s last-ball six in 1986. “For a long while, I struggled to get it out of my head, but we never begrudged our rival fans. The Pakistanis and Indians would be in the same area, no segregation. The commentators sat behind us, so we could talk to them. It was in the open and had no air-conditioning. It was like a community festival,” he recalls.

“In Dubai, all Indians and Pakistanis are friends, but when they go to the ground, they forget the friendship for those three hours. They support their respective teams. When the match is over, everybody goes back together,” Bhatia says, adding that the scenes are pretty similar to Sharjah, except that the crowd there was more passionate. “The disappointment we had after the six was akin to what the Pakistanis had felt when their team had failed to chase down 125 a couple of years earlier.”

However, unlike those times, players from the two sides aren’t very familiar with each other now, considering they have not played a bilateral series in some time. Sharjah was also known for its lavish parties where players from the two teams rubbed shoulders with Bollywood, quite like Henry Blofeld mixed cricket commentary with earring details. Now, politics apart, bio-bubbles keep players apart. Without the pandemic, India would have hosted this edition of the T20 World Cup.

While the Dubai International Stadium oozes opulence, it’s the more stolid Sharjah grounds that paved the way to here. Three years ago, Dubai also hosted three India versus Pakistan fixtures inside a week during the 2018 Asia Cup. And Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ramiz Raja has already said that they would have to shift the 2023 Asia Cup to the UAE if India refuse to travel to Pakistan.

Cricket ‘Chacha’ Mohammed Zaman is the ‘captain’ of a group of six Pakistani fans who have come from Tarar village in Gujranwala, hoping against hope to get tickets for the match. He is very angry with the organisers for making ticket purchases “high-tech”. “They only accept credit card payments (online). We aren’t upmarket people, we don’t have credit cards. And now, those who have extra tickets are demanding a very high price. Still we have come and we will get our tickets. We have come with a slogan — Khelo meri jaan, sath hai tumhara chacha aur poora Pakistan (Give it your best dears, with you are uncle and whole of Pakistan).”

India have been good at shutting out the outside noise, one of the reasons for their World Cup dominance when it comes to Pakistan. Virat Kohli puts things in perspective. “We are in a situation where we are in charge of what we need to do on the field. For that to happen, we need to be in the most balanced space possible. In games like these, such unnecessary stuff, from a professional point of view… it’s fine as long as that stays outside our controlled environment and we focus on what we need to do as cricketers. Hence, I have always maintained that it (an India-Pakistan match) has never been different to any other game of cricket that we play.”

His Pakistani counterpart, Babar Azam, speaks about the team’s rendezvous with Prime Minister Imran Khan before coming to the UAE. He says Khan advised them to draw inspiration from the mentality and resolve of the 1992 World Cup-winning squad.

Iqbal agrees that Dubai has now taken the baton from Sharjah to carry forward the legacy of India-Pakistan cricket.

Purely from a cricketing point of view, the ex-Pakistan captain also considers India the bigger favourites to win the T20 World Cup. “As far as Sunday’s game is concerned, there is no reason why Pakistan can’t beat India. But being realistic, if Pakistan win, I don’t see them going on to win the World Cup. However, if India lose to Pakistan, they can go on to win the World Cup because of the strong team they have. Pakistan doesn’t have the strength to win X number of matches to win the World Cup. At the same time, I sincerely hope the Pakistani cricketers prove me wrong.”

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