The Pride of Pitch: Pakistan Plays Cricket in Dubai

Originally published at Last Wednesday, the Pakistan national team played its first matches since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore last March, leaving nine people dead. This time Dubai was the host. The tragedy threatened a cultural keystone for Pakistan. Australia had already avoided matches in Pakistan for the last ten years, but days after the attacks a diplomatic sports talk happened in Dubai to determine where the two teams would play future matches. Dubai’s new cricket stadium in the aptly named Dubai Sports City was already an identifiable landmark.

It seemed fortuitous that Dubai’s stadium would provide a neutral zone in time to ensure Pakistan’s continued presence in the sport. The UAE has in the last years positioned itself as a land for cricket, recognizing the country’s diplomatic ability to host different cricket-playing countries and the lucrative potential of the market. Like Dubai, cricket spans across vast borders of cultures and economies.  In the UAE, expats are the majority and in that majority, Pakistanis make up a great number, about 500,000; they could fill up 20 stadiums of this size. And on Wednesday, they showed they would flock at the chance to do so.

Yet the timing was just shy of perfect. The first match might have been a remarkable statement of sports and diplomacy, but it did not feature a completed stadium. Parking was on uneven patches of broken asphalt and unpacked sand. A small batch of mini-buses was commissioned to carry people from the sands to the stadium, but the crowd immediately realized the futility of waiting and started on foot. Security tried at first to coerce them back, but the crowd was just too big. It was a kilometer-long parade of shiny green and white flags, peppered with some Australians in their outback hats, to a stadium still adrift in sand and construction debris.

The most glaring evidence of not being ready unfortunately was the inability to get more than a fraction of the fans into the stadium before the first match had begun. Two hours into the match, there were thousands of people waiting to get through four airport-style security gates. The same number of security gates served the more expensive seating section, where one person entered for every 200 in the cheaper section.

You pay 50 dirhams, a dear sum for many, for the chance to see your national team, and then you reach a queue with no end in sight. Once the match started with more fans outside than inside, I couldn’t help but wonder if the stranded fans outside would become restive, or if there would be a quick logistical maneuver to open the wealthier gates to more people. Neither happened. The atmosphere remained positive. No one wanted to spoil the event.

I had come hoping to experience two contrasting cultures brought together by a passion for the sport. However, even in the 200-dirham seats, sealed off by a steel fence and a hefty body guard, it was hard to find more than a handful of Australians amid the Pakistanis and a few other nationalities. This match was about Pakistan — its concerns about home, the threat to its beloved pastime, its experience with a kind of freedom abroad, and most obviously its pride in its cricket team.

The stands weren’t outfitted yet with refreshment services. Only after the first thousand or so fans had entered the stadium was there any sign of refreshments to come. Dubai’s famous Pakistani Ravi Restaurant was putting up banners in front of its folding tables, stacking paper plates and cups, setting up pots and ladles to serve the 50-dirham section helpings of chicken biryani (a more sterile biryani served in pre-packaged containers would eventually be available via one of two microwaves in the 200-dirham section).

Signs made references to Pakistan’s contemporary condition. One man hoisted an inflated version of the Emirati eagle, next to his friend whose cardboard poster bore Sheikh Zayed’s portrait and the text “I MIS YOU”: perhaps nostalgia for less complicated relations between the UAE and Pakistan that go back before either state existed, or perhaps recognition of Sheikh Zayed’s conviction that sports should rise beyond political rifts. The revered former sheikh of Abu Dhabi had also built the UAE’s arguably most beautiful act of architecture and its original home to cricket, the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

One group of fans held a hand-colored sign “Listen! We want cricket back in Pakistan.” You had to wonder why. It seemed the Pakistanis working in the UAE could see the silver lining in recent events — the continued presence of Pakistan cricket in the UAE could fortify their existence here. Another sign read, “Enjoy the Pitch / We built it …!!!” The sign represented the terrific forces at play in the stadium, forces greater than the star power of the Pakistani athletes. The sign also represented a rare, expressive moment when individuals who have built Dubai’s great structures could then make it known to a crowd — including their revered cricket team, no less — that they had helped to make the day possible.

I left after more than two hours of play. Lines outside the stadium were only growing larger. There were even people approaching by foot from the speed-fierce Emirates Road. Families were emptying vans of strollers and bags of food and drinks, which would only have to be given up at security, if they ever got that far. I wish I could have seen more, to see the stands closer to full-capacity. The Pakistanis won the series, and one could ask whether the cheers were more about defeating the Australian team or about simply having hosted their own team in Dubai. The logistical mess of getting everyone out of the stadium likely became a celebration in itself. I would have like to witness it all, but it wouldn’t have been my party.