Untouched by Indo-Pak politics, Sharjah, Toronto kept cricket rivalry alive

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) are currently having a tussle over the venue of the 2023 Asia Cup, but it’s not a new thing for the India and Pakistan cricket teams, who always have had issues due to political tensions.

Despite the absence of bilateral series at their respective homes, however, both nations, over the years, have managed to keep their rivalry intact by playing at neutral venues.

Unlike matches between other teams, India versus Pakistan games are not just about the action on the ground, but things outside of cricket also matter a lot. History and socio-political tensions are a few key factors, which are also involved in an Indo-Pak game.

So, keeping all these things in mind, the security of players becomes paramount, which eventually leads to the option of playing at a neutral venue. Be it Sharjah, Toronto, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, these venues have kept the rivalry alive.

For 20 years since 1981, the only neutral venue that could host an India-Pakistan tie with immense fanfare was Sharjah. The Sharjah Cricket Stadium, in the Emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates was built in the early 1980s and very quickly became a regular home for tournaments as the popularity of one-day cricket exploded following India’s World Cup win in 1983.

Between 1984 and 2003, the ground hosted 198 ODIs and four Tests (in 2002 when Pakistan played games there due to political instability at home), attracting good crowds, mainly from the area’s large Asian expat population. It also hosted Masters (veterans) events and other second-string tournaments.

All were played under the auspices of ‘The Cricketers Benefit Fund Series (CBFS)’, which had been established in 1981 by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, and whose main aim was to honour cricketers of the past and present generations from India and Pakistan, with benefit purses in recognition of their services to the game of cricket.

Be it the Rothmans Four-Nations Cup in 1985, which saw two best all-rounders Kapil Dev and Imran shining for their respective teams, or Javed Miandad’s last-ball six against Chetan Sharma, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium produced some historical moments.

When the match-fixing scandals began to emerge in the late 1990s, Sharjah’s star began to wane, and although nothing was ever proved, sides started to move away. And in 2001, the Indian government banned the national side from playing there after Delhi Police unearthed a match-fixing scandal.

Between April 2003 and February 2010, the venue hosted no internationals, but that changed with Associates beginning to play games there and Pakistan needing an off-shore venue because of security problems in their country. The stadiums in Dubai and Abu Dhabi now give that option of neutral venues for India-Pakistan matches.

In between, Toronto also hosted the Sahara Cup, which was a bilateral ODI cricket series between Pakistan and India. It was staged from 1996 to 1998 and all the matches were played in daylight. Pakistan won the first series 3-2 in 1996 while India won 4-1 in 1997. Pakistan again won 4-1 in 1998 as a total of 15 matches were played over a span of three years.

The series was a five-year agreement by both the PCB and the BCCI, with the International Management Group (IMG). Trans World International (TWI) and ESPN had telecast rights.

The series had gained good popularity in the cricketing arena, just like the Sharjah Cup. However, the series was later called off after Sahara India — the sponsors — pulled out in the wake of the Pakistani intrusion in Kashmir in 1999. The diplomatic relations between the two countries considerably worsened during the Kargil war in 1999, and further, India suspended all cricketing ties with Pakistan from 2000 until 2004.

As far as the Dubai International Cricket Stadium and Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi are concern, they became the lifeline and home venues for Pakistan as all teams refused to travel to their country after a visiting Sri Lanka national cricket team suffered a terror attack in Lahore in 2009.

No doubt, cricket has returned to Pakistan in the last few years but the Indian government and BCCI still don’t consider it a safe place to play matches for the team. Perhaps, outsiders might think that India is flexing its muscles but they can’t understand the gravity and situation of an Indo-Pak cricket match in Pakistan.

The latest discussion is about the venue for the 2023 Asia Cup. The next year’s continental Championship is scheduled to be played in Pakistan. However, BCCI secretary Jay Shah, who is also the president of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), recently said that the Indian team will not travel to Pakistan for the continental championship and demanded that the event be moved to a neutral venue.

And it seems, the stadiums in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have hosted India-Pakistan in the recent past — during the 2021 Men’s T20 World Cup and Asia Cup 2022 — will play the role of hosts once again.

Notably, Pakistan and India do not play bilateral cricket and only meet in global tournaments or multi-team events since 2013 due to strained political tensions between the two countries.

India’s last trip to Pakistan was for the 2008 Asia Cup, while Pakistan’s last visit to India was for the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup. The two teams last played each other at the 2022 Asia Cup in UAE in August-September this year, and are due to face off in the T20 World Cup in Melbourne on October 23.

So, the importance of neutral venues are very high as these grounds have kept the option open for hosting an India-Pakistan match, which keeps everyone engaged, generates a lot of eyeballs and even revenues.

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