Sharjah's love affair with cricket extends into the Twenty20 World Cup as memories of Javed Miandad's last-ball six and Sachin Tendulkar's "desert storm" linger at the famed venue. Businessman Abdul Rahman Bukhatir brought the game to the United Arab Emirates to provide support to former cricketers from India and Pakistan.
The ground remained synonymous with India-Pakistan rivalry in the 1980s and 1990s before the action shifted to more modern venues of the subcontinent. Formally established in 1982, the venue hosted its first ODI two years later when Zaheer Abbas' Pakistan faced Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup.
But Mazhar Khan, honorary secretary of the Sharjah Cricket Council, told AFP that a match between a Sunil Gavaskar XI and a Javed Miandad XI in 1981 opened the doors for top-level cricket. "Mr. Bukhatir has helped a lot of cricketers by supporting them through benefit purses. He is the 'Father of Cricket' in the UAE," Khan told AFP.
"Cricket started in the mid-1970s and was played on the tarmac of Sharjah airport which was used by the British forces stationed here. Then there was the flow of expatriates coming in for jobs. Mr. Bukhatir was the pioneer in bringing in players from India and Pakistan and letting them play for his clubs.
"The first Bukhatir League -- a 50-over tournament -- started in 1975 and it has been literally going on the trot for the past 46 years."
The famous venue has hosted 241 ODI matches. Having begun life with 5,000 seats and scaffolding for stands, it can now accommodate about 16,000 spectators. It remains way ahead of the Sydney Cricket Ground that has hosted 161 ODIs since 1979.
Miandad made the venue special on April 18, 1986, with an innings that still rankles in many Indian fans' minds as it was a defining knock in cricket rivalry between the two nations. Chasing 246 for victory, the Pakistan batsman hit an unbeaten 116 off 114 balls to rob India of victory on the final ball with a six off Chetan Sharma. The match remained the most memorable at Sharjah until Tendulkar unleashed his magic against Australia.
The batting great hit 143 off 131 balls to tear into the Australian bowling that included Damien Fleming, Michael Kasprowicz, and spin wizard Shane Warne on April 22, 1998. The match was halted due to a sandstorm and then Tendulkar exploded. The knock came to be known as the "desert storm".
"Those two matches will forever be in our minds and the third one was when Pakistan bowled out India for 127 with Imran Khan returning career-best figures of 6-14 but were later skittled out of 87," remembers Khan of a 1985 match.
The ground later lost favour with top nations led by India who banned their players from the venue due to reports of match-fixing activities. It returned as an ODI venue in 2010 when Afghanistan made it their home base.
Pakistan also played their cricket at the three venues in the UAE -- Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi -- after the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in 2009 kept overseas teams away from the cricket-crazy nation. The powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) returned to the famed arena with the lucrative Indian Premier League in 2014, 2020, and 2021.
Cricket's base in the UAE has shifted to Dubai which owns a bigger stadium located close to the International Cricket Council (ICC) headquarters. Despite that, Khan claims Sharjah, with its new corporate boxes, still draws the best and the most passionate crowds and will remain the home of UAE cricket.