The controversy surrounding the IPL has done little to deter fans in UAE from flocking the stadiums, as they gear up to watch the Indian stars in action for the first time since 2006.
On Monday afternoon, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium looked like it had been airlifted out of India. This impression came partly from the lightweight tent-like roofs covering the stands at the other end, the sort of roof that has sprung up over pretty much every new stadium in India.
Mostly, though, it was all the branding, all those blue vinyl strips that covered every available surface with the IPL logo and the crests of its eight franchises. Tony Greig would have struggled to identify exactly which aisles all that dancing had taken place in, all those years ago.
Back then, back in the boom years of 50-over cricket, Sharjah had hosted the IPL of its time. There was money, there was Bollywood, there was even a tantalising whiff of impropriety. When it all became too much, India stopped playing there. For close to 14 years, the people of the UAE didn’t get to watch India play, except when they came over for two matches in Abu Dhabi in 2006.
It seems weirdly appropriate that the IPL has come to the UAE precisely when – though not for that reason – the whiff of impropriety surrounding it is at its most pungent.
Not that anyone is staying away. Tickets for most of the first week of the tournament have already sold out.
“IPL is IPL,” said an Emirates Cricket Board official. “There is so much enthusiasm that such things will not cause public interest to wane.”
You could feel this at the ground, where crews of workers were putting things in place for the start of the tournament. Even the Pakistani expatriates among them were looking forward to the IPL, never mind their players missing out, never mind them missing out even when the tournament had pitched its tent at what has been their cricketing home for the last five years.
“We are feeling very bad,” said Mohammad Arshad, a member of the stadium work staff, speaking for himself and for his colleague Wasim. They occupied the two top-most rungs of a 20-foot stepladder, and were hoisting a cable up to the roof. “But we are supporting Chennai Super Kings. We like MS Dhoni’s captaincy.”
Leaning against the fence of a neighbouring stand, a man watched over a crew of maintenance workers hosing down the seats. This man, Mohammad Ali, turned out to be their supervisor. He has been in Sharjah for 11 years, and visits his family in Madurai once every one-and-a-half years.
“I like all the players in the Indian team,” he said. “So I’m definitely excited about the IPL. I’ve watched Sri Lanka, West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan obviously, and even Afghanistan. Almost all the teams except India.”
The official had said pretty much the same thing. “The Indian players were missed,” he said. “No one expected the IPL to come here, so after it happened, suddenly, there has definitely been a buzz. It is a good break, and it’s good to have India here, and to have the BCCI here.”
The Emirates Cricket Board, he said, looked forward to the BCCI’s support in helping the growth of cricket in the UAE. “We will seek their guidance towards developing cricket in this part of the world,” he said. “They are like our elder brothers.”
At times, though, they can get a bit Big Brother. Back in 2009, when the IPL was first moved out of India, the management at the Wanderers in Johannesburg weren’t too pleased with what they saw as an attempt by the IPL to “take control of the entire Stadium operation, regardless of the cost or disruption.”
Back in the old days, the members’ stand in Sharjah had a clear view of the players’ comings and goings, and the only thing separating the media and the players’ dressing room was a four-foot long fence. But much has changed in the years since India last played there, and the public and the media definitely won’t get the same kind of access any more, for better or worse.
On Monday, though, some vestiges of the stadium’s old-world atmosphere still remained. A man with a camera seemed to have wandered in without too much of a hassle, and was clearly enjoying himself, taking photographs of the last-minute preparations at the ground, and even of the office walls, covered with action shots from the 90s.
At some point, though, his luck ran out, and he ran into a venue manager, who made him delete all his photographs. He had crossed the invisible line separating Sharjah Cricket Stadium and Sharjah, the IPL venue.