India and Pakistan are set to play again in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a region that has hosted eye-ball grabbing, crazily oscillating matches in the 1980s and 1990s. The two teams face off in the T20 World Cup in October-November after the International Cricket Council (ICC) put them in the same group on Friday.
Since the year 2000, when India last played Pakistan in Sharjah, the two have faced off in the UAE only four times -- twice in Abu Dhabi in 2006 and twice in Dubai in 2018 during the Asia Cup. They were all ODI matches with the 2018 games being part of the Asia Cup, organised by the Asian Cricket Council.
The World Cup will be the first time they will play T20 format against each other on UAE soil though it is yet to be decided which of the three venues will host the match. It will also be the first T20 match between the two countries in five years, the previous one being during the 2016 World Cup in Kolkata.
While India hasn't been keen to play there, the Covid-19 situation - or monsoon, as described by the Indian board - has forced the World Cup, hosted by India, to be shifted there.
Former cricketers, who have played in Sharjah, said that though the teams are not as evenly matched as they were, the match will still draw crowds.
"We played in the 1980s. At that time, both sides would get equal crowds. Emotions used to run very high. Winning was the only thing you could think of. Of course, only the players who were mentally strong could survive. It was the best platform for them [to perform and attain stardom]. Sharjah separated men from the boys," said Dilip Vengsarkar who played several matches in Sharjah.
Organised by private body
Those matches were organised by a private body, the Cricketers' Benefit Fund Series (CBFS), which would name a few cricketers every season and present them with a benefit purse from the tournament's earnings.
Though Vengsarkar thinks the audience will be big and interest high, he said the Indian team is much stronger. He, however, said that an India-Pakistan game is unpredictable as was proved by the ICC Champions Trophy final in 2017 in which unfancied Pakistan beat India.
"It will be similar [in terms of interest]. The Indian team is much, much stronger. But the thing what you saw a couple of years back [in the Champions Trophy]... the build-up, hype and interest will be the same, more or less. Everybody likes to see this game," Vengsarkar told IANS.
Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh, who too played in Sharjah in the 1980s and came up with stellar performances, said the interest would be there but perhaps not as much.
"I have my doubts [on whether it will match up to the hype of the 1980s]. There are not many heroes in Pakistan cricket. There will be interest, but I don't think there will be as much. Now, the Indian side is stronger than the Pakistan side," Maninder, who received the CBFS benefit purse in 2000, told IANS.
Huge presence of audience expected
"The traditional rivalry that two countries have, you will see. Back in the day, I think why it took off was due to the presence of so many Indians and Pakistanis. Living in the UAE, they weren't getting much cricket. So this would create interest, especially because of traditional rivalry. That it was played regularly also helped."
Over the years, since the BCCI has gotten richer and financially stronger and could pay big money to its players the cash-rich tournament organised in Sharjah by CBFS lost the attraction. The BCCI then stopped allowing its players from visiting the UAE.
Ex-India off-spinner Shivlal Yadav, who too like Vengsarkar and Maninder, was received a benefit purse, in 1998.
"The Sharjah cricket tournament was organised by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir [the brain behind CBFS]. ICC stopped that. He used to honour players and give players money. Now all those things are not required, so there is no point of the private tournament being hosted or the BCCI sending a team there," Yadav told IANS.
But Yadav still felt that the match will attract eyeballs. Pace bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar, currently in Sri Lanka for the white-ball series, told the media on Friday that he was looking forward to the big game.
"It is always exciting to play against Pakistan. It is always a pressure match. Of course, it will be a high-intensity match but to be honest we haven't yet thought about it. Because we have got a lot of cricket left. We have matches in Sri Lanka. In England, there are Test matches, then IPL… But of course, when we get over the IPL, we will start thinking about it," he said.