Big-time cricket returned to Gulf on Saturday with the Indian Premier League, started with defending champions Mumbai Indians locking horns with perennial rivals Chennai Super Kings in Abu Dhabi, but the contrast with the carnival atmosphere on display during the 1980s and 90s couldn’t be starker. Most of the best players in the world will be present in the United Arab Emirates this autumn, but cooped in eight different bio-bubbles with stringent restrictions.

Apart from playing matches and training sessions, one would hardly get a chance to move out. It’s life in a cocoon. Needless to say, there will be no crowds at the three venues, at least for the major part of the tournament.

It’s a far cry from the time when former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal and local businessman Abdul Rahman Bukhatir joined hands to bring cricket to the desert, specifically Sharjah. Over the next two decades, it became the ‘neutral’ hub of India-Pakistan limited-overs cricket, thriving in a mix of cricket and celebrityhood as much as the passionate fans.

In 2014, when the first half of the Indian Premier League was held in the UAE because of the general elections in India, Sharjah was allotted six matches. This time, the IPL’s Covid-forced switch will see the Emirates’ oldest cricket venue host 12 of the 56 league stage matches and share the stage with Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“The main reason for a carnival-like atmosphere was the India-Pakistan matches in a packed stadium. The Indian and Pakistani workers in Sharjah, and also other in the Emirates, wanted to see their heroes. So, they came in droves and created a carnival-like atmosphere. And once television started showing the matches live in the subcontinent, popularity rose exponentially,” Iqbal tells #KhabarLive. But things will not be the same when the biggest domestic T20 league begins its latest edition.

“Matches in front of empty stands might feel weird. As a player, I cannot feel or find myself getting motivated without the atmosphere. Don’t forget that players are artistes. They need appreciation. When there’s no appreciation, it’s like going through the motions,” he opines.

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This IPL will mark Indian cricket’s full-fledged return to Sharjah. In 2018, when the BCCI hosted the Asia Cup in the UAE, Sharjah wasn’t a venue. It had fallen afoul of the Indian cricket establishment at the turn of the century, in the wake of the match-fixing scandal involving then South Africa captain Hansie Cronje. The majority of IPL matches this year too would be played in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – 24 and 20 respectively. Dubai encapsulates Emirates’ commercial vibrancy. But for cricket fans of a certain vintage, Sharjah evokes nostalgia.

From India bundling out Pakistan for 87 after being all out for 125 in 1985 to Javed Miandad’s last-ball six off Chetan Sharma next year and Sachin Tendulkar’s ‘desert storm’ innings against Australia in 1998, Sharjah has given us many moments of cheer and despair with the crowd in the stands an integral part of the atmosphere. VVS Laxman had the box seat when Tendulkar decimated the Aussie bowling 22 years ago.

The Hyderabad artist didn’t play too many matches in Sharjah, but fell for the venue. “Some of the best one-day matches happened at that ground. For me, to be playing there and be part of that winning team in ’98 (had been a memorable experience). The stand was buzzing with Indian fans. It was like a home game for us,” Laxman recalls for #KhabarLive.

Referring to the upcoming IPL edition, the Sunrisers Hyderabad mentor believes that playing before empty stands will not reduce the intensity of the players. “I don’t have any doubt that if we were playing that (Desert Storm) game before empty stands, Sachin still would have got into the zone. All great players derive that internal motivation. It’s not necessary to be motivated externally.”

Miandad dittos. “If you are a professional player, it doesn’t matter if you are playing in front of a packed house or behind closed doors. A professional player plays for his country or team, and his reputation,” the former Pakistan captain tells #KhabarLive.

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But he couldn’t resist remembering the passion displayed during those memorable India-Pakistan encounters. Miandad recalls how after his last-ball six, a photographer ran inside the ground and embraced him. “His beat was to cover the Emirates’ royalty. But he used to turn up for every India-Pakistan game. The emotion overload of the fans made Sharjah what it was.”

Former Australia captain and Delhi Capitals head coach Ricky Ponting has some mixed memories of Sharjah from his playing days. “I enjoyed playing there (Sharjah). It seemed like every time we played there, Sachin made a hundred against us (tongue in cheek). So that probably wasn’t enjoyable.

“Look, it was great. Wickets were always really good. Generally, we played some triangular series there, one-day cricket. We played some Test cricket there against Pakistan as well, when a few years ago we weren’t touring Pakistan. I enjoyed the experience of playing there, but I think this is going to be different, as there will be no crowd there,” Ponting tells #KhabarLive.

Without fans at the venue, Ponting stresses on teams creating their own atmosphere. “I think this IPL is going to be made of a lot of unusual scenarios and situations. The fact that we are here under strict Covid protocols is unusual. That we have been together for three weeks already before the first game is unusual preparation. And once we get into the games, to be playing in front of no crowd is going to be exceptionally different.

“I mean, it’s really going to be interesting to see how some of the players actually handle that. Who knows (when was) the last time MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli played in front of nobody. That’s probably never happened in their lives before. For us as a group, we got to make our own atmosphere on the field. It’s the same for everybody. It’s going to be an unusual spectacle.”

Former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar was part of several of the Sharjah cricketing spectacles in the early years, and understands the strange situation the behind-closed-doors matches will bring.

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“It’s always very difficult (to play) without fans at the ground. Spectators are the life and soul of cricket. A cricket match without spectators is impossible to think of. Atmosphere makes a lot of difference. You get motivated by the people around. I have been watching the English Premier League and without crowds inside the stadiums, it looks a bit odd to me. I don’t know how they (players) can give 100 per cent (in closed-door matches). Then again, you don’t have any choice (in this IPL). This is an unnatural situation,” Vengsarkar says.

The IPL will provide the Emirates a chance to regain the status of a bona fide major cricketing venue. The country is anyway host to a number of other elite sporting events, attracting some of the biggest names in the world. Sharjah, on its own, went into the record books for hosting the highest number of ODIs before the party came to a grinding halt at the turn of the century.

A couple of VIP boxes in the stadium were allegedly owned by underworld dons. After Cronje-gate, Sharjah became the centre of Sir Paul Condon’s investigation into corruption in cricket.

“We staged matches in Sharjah for 20 years. Not one single tournament. Other than allegations… nothing was proven. No individual was found guilty – umpires, players, officials and/or organisers. It was all hearsay. Eventually what happened, at the end of the day, not one match, person, player, personality, umpire was convicted. So based on allegations, whether it’s the hindsight or present, you can’t give a statement. Personally, what I felt, people became a bit jealous. Sharjah grew too big for certain people. And it grew from nothing,” Iqbal believes.

But started on Saturday, the eyes of the cricketing world will turn to the Arabian Desert again and in the absence of fans in the stands, the sound of ball meeting bat will echo even louder. #KhabarLive #hydnews