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Fast bowling: cricket in Ramadan, The Wisden Cricketer

‘The twin Emirates Towers skyscrapers faced each other on the horizon like conferring umpires.’

In a small office under Sharjah Stadium, the tall, lean fast bowler Ali Assad smilingly described a cricket and fasting life to cripple an SAS XI. One night he finished a Ramadan Tournament game in Abu Dhabi at 12.30 a.m., got home to Sharjah at 3.00, ate, slept for three hours (missing the last chance, pre-dawn meal) worked all day in his store keeper’s job, drove to Abu Dhabi, played until 11.30 p.m., then drove the two and a half hours home. How, how can he do it? Ali paused, “It is hard, but it is the craze for cricket.”

Up in the stadium 250 spectators lounged under floodlights for two pre-quarter finals in Sharjah’s CSS Ramadan Trophy, South Asian men in salwar kameez or tight trousers and stripy shirts, munching pop corn and peanuts, drinking condensed milk tea, eyes on the play. Women in saris sat in the padded, ‘Ladies/Families Only’ seats, their children hopping about the steps. Fireworks burst in the distance: Ramadan days are slow but the nights are celebratory.

The UAE’s cricketers celebrate with hard-fought tournaments. In fact “Ramadan is just a festival of cricket,” Naeem Aslam had said, back in the office. Naeem, the pointy-sideburned young captain of the powerful ECB Blues called the tournaments “cricket as a passion.” So Ramadan always means fasting and cricket? Naeem fasts diligently but chuckled, “Cricket first, fasting second.”

Isn’t it hard fasting from dawn then playing cricket? Naeem shrugged, then conceded “It is difficult in summer.” That means night games only, the players eating a light, Iftar meal after sunset then feasting after the game. A winter Ramadan includes the cakewalk of 35ºC afternoon games. Without drink breaks. Ramadan 2005 fell in autumn, so it was only very hot and the players only had to forego food and drink for 12 hours or so.

Sharjah and Abu Dhabi’s Ramadan Tournaments are Twenty-20s, Dubai’s 25 overs: 185 fixtures altogether. Clubs compete alongside company-sponsored sides, teams often entering more than one tournament. Players, all amateurs, sometimes turn out for more than one team. (Ali does, and fits in training for the UAE national team.)  Schedules conflict, fixtures recede mirage-like then, at the end of Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr blows a party-sized, two day hole in them.

After the Ramadan Tournaments, “the craze for cricket” marches on. The UAE’s 250 teams and 7,500 players (almost all first or second generation subcontinent immigrants) play in a mammoth September to May season of cups and leagues. Some teams still then “enjoy” the odd 45ºC summer game.

At Sharjah Stadium that night the clubmen of Players Enval started crazily enough in the 7.30 fixture against Air India, with two fours and a six thwacked to the cover boundary in the second over. Crackers boomed in the stands.

Desmond Rodrigues, manager of the Fly Emirates team and former first class player in Mumbai, dragged on his cigarette. Most UAE competitions he explained are played on sand-and-clay outfields and glassy cement strips that delight batsmen and punish bowlers. The 32-team Sharjah Tournament meant “All the rank amateurs get a chance to play on turf. The ranking teams get a chance to show their skills.”

Players Enval’s skills deserted them as they plummeted to 86 all out. Air India spooned a catch in their first over. Players Enval rushed optimistically in the field. A  false dawn. Air India made it with seven overs to spare.

At ten o’clock, Fly Emirates against Seven Seas Strikers, company teams whose players, unusually, actually work for the companies. The exception was the lanky, goateed Tim Anderson, once of  South Australia, now working for the ICC. Tim was new to the team, his place no forgone conclusion: Emirates beat a stunned Durham on their pre-2005 season UAE warm-up.

As Seven Seas practised catching white balls against white floodlights, Tim discussed the Ramadan Tournaments. “They go for it more than we do. And it’s fantastic how people will be out till  past midnight watching cricket.” The fasting? “It’s difficult for a Christian Australian to comprehend. It’s quite a show of strength. We could learn from it.”

Hampered by the spin of Freddy Sidhwa, Seven Seas’ amiable grey-haired captain and Group Chairman, Emirates prodded to 112 for 6 off 15. It was past 11 and cool. Light mist blurred the floodlights. Suddenly Emirates accelerated. In the stands a chanting group of lads started drumming an empty water cooler. Emirates roared on their batsmen, “That’s going, that’s going and it’s gone! Shabash shabash!” With Seven Seas fumbling the damp ball, Emirates flew to 175.

Between innings, Emirates jogged round the field, then sprinted across. Seven Seas were unimpressed. Wickets fell but they kept in touch, Khaled pasting 98 off 49, one of his eight sixes chipping black paint off the sight screen. At 1.10 a.m. and with the crowd bubbling, Amjad bowled the penultimate over: 24 needed. He wrong footed Seven Seas, going round the wicket then over, round then over. They fell 14 short

Three nights later, they bounced back in Dubai’s Dulsco Tournament. Isolated among sand and cement pitches, the grass Dubai Cricket Council ground was a quiet world away from Sharjah Stadium. The twin Emirates Towers skyscrapers faced each other on the horizon like conferring umpires. Spectators lay on grass banks around the floodlit pitch.

Seven Seas struck six an over and MEX Logistics made a bid for the tournament’s nosiest fielders. In the corrugated roof pavilion was Freddy Sidhwa in a broad-brimmed hat, 64 and still collecting Bowler of the Tournament awards. He shouted in Urdu to the middle. “I told them to go for it now,” he said.  Ayub obliged, reaching 77 before being bowled.  Sweat flicked off his yellow baseball cap as the tall, Roman-nosed Ayub acknowledged the pavilion’s applause.

Freddy, who wakes at 4.00 then jogs before an hour’s yoga, was unfazed by Ramadan cricket. “Tiring? No on the contrary, it is very refreshing I’d say. During the winter months it is OK. Many times we play in the morning and the evening.” In the second innings, Freddy helped his side into the pre-quarter finals with 2 for 31.

New Medical Centre had won the Abu Dhabi Tournament and now wanted the Sharjah one. The stadium’s drummers were back, thumping the water cooler with an empty green bottle. Belhasa Driving Centre’s innings began at 7.30. At 7.35 they were 2 for 1. NMC’s spinners applied the brakes.

“Spinners work better in this tournament,” said the white-haired Mazhar Khan of the Emirates Cricket Board and ICC Executive Board. “Batsman like the challenge of the fast bowling.” He thought Twenty-20 fun but, well; “This is just bang bang bang.” NMC stopped even that, quick in the field with the ball still dry.

They strolled their own innings, jogging between wickets, picking shots, winning in 10 overs. “They have played about 15 games this month,” said Mazhar. It didn’t look it. They finished with a six slapped casually over deep square leg. As Naeem had said, “Everything is easy in Ramadan.”

With special thanks to Gopal Jasapara of cricketlovers.com.

January 2006

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