Sharjah: Think of a cricket field and your mind instantly conjures up the image of an expanse of verdant coiffured grass.
This vast tract of empty land in Sharjah Industrial Area Three isn’t anything remotely like that. It doesn’t even have a twig of grass. The ground is uneven and, in many places, it is rougher than the surface of the moon.
But that doesn’t stop hundreds of avid cricket enthusiasts from converging here every Friday afternoon for a feisty game of tape-ball cricket - a street version of the sport where the traditional leather-bound wooden cricket ball is substituted by a tennis ball, which is tightly wrapped in sticky electrical tape.
Nearly 50 teams, each comprising 11 players, battle it out on the barren ground within a few metres of each other. That’s about 550 people not counting scores of bemused spectators.
Entertaining and competitive
Highly entertaining and competitive in equal measure, the eight-overs aside matches take place on makeshift cricket pitches painstakingly laid out by the amateur cricketers, who are mostly blue collar workers from Pakistan.
“We play from 2pm until sunset. These pitches you see there, we prepared them with our bare hands using cement and concrete,” says Bashir from Waziristan, who works as a fork lift truck operator but doubles up as a medium pacer for his team on weekends.
Vikas, 27, a plumber from the Indian city of Varanasi, said he was introduced to tape-ball cricket by his Pakistani colleagues two years ago. “Now I am hooked. It’s really addictive. I am among a handful of players who are not from Pakistan, but I am never made to feel like an outsider. In fact they call me Virat after Indian cricket skipper Virat Kohli. There’s great camaraderie and friendly banter between us,” he says.
Unlike conventional cricket, tape-ball cricket does not require gloves, kneepads or helmets. “All you need is a bat, ball and stumps,” explains a Pakistani carpenter as he digs out a tennis ball from a plastic bag and expertly bandages it with red electrical tape making it look like the orb on the Japan flag.
“Now it will behave like real cricket ball without hurting anyone,” he says running his fingers on the ball’s imaginary seam.
Asked how they kept track of their ball, what with 25 matches going on at the same time and outfields often overlapping each other, one player let on that simple and unique pen markings made it easy to differentiate.
Gujranwala-based lorry driver Shahzad, who opens the batting for his team, says he loves tape-ball cricket because it is fast and fun.
“The weather is good and I want to make the most of it. This place is perfect for us. One, it’s big enough to host 25 matches simultaneously and, second, it’s close to our living quarters,” says Shahzad, his gaze transfixed on the ground where his team needs an improbable 12 runs in two balls.
As the bowler, a lanky truck driver from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa starts running, his shalwar-kameez flapping wildly behind him, Shahbaz cups his hands around his mouth and shouts at the batsman: “Six wanted, Ajaz bhai.”
The batsman responds by dancing down the crease in his Peshawaree sandals and honking the ball over the bowler’s head for a monstrous six.
“Shabaash Ajaz Bhai, come on, one more six,” Shabaz encourages his teammate.
Ajaz tries to repeat the feat off the next delivery but is deftly caught by a fielder inside the boundary marked by road safety cones. The match is over. As the call for Maghreb prayers from a mosque rent the air, other players start packing up too. Within minutes the place wears a deserted look once more.