Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the stellar cricketer Sunil Gavaskar’s memorable debut in the West Indies. Owing to Covid-19 and the batting legend’s pressing professional commitments, the celebrations were scattered throughout the year. Dubai-based millionaire Shyam Bhatia had to wait till December to finally get his friend to come down to the Emirati city so that he could be felicitated at the eponymous private museum he has set up devoted to the game. The Shyam Bhatia Cricket Museum, housed in Bhatia’s mansion in Jumeirah, is widely believed to be among the best privately managed cricket museums in the world. Set up in 2010, and spread over two storeys, it is packed with a massive collection of cricketing memorabilia —autographed bats, blazers, boots—with separate areas dedicated to the exploits of top run-getters and World Cups.
“I’ve always been mad about cricket. The first cricketers I ever met—this was when I was a kid—were Ramchand (Gulabrai) and Vijay Manjrekar. But I’m Sunil Gavaskar’s biggest fan. He gave me one of his bats several decades ago, and that is how it all started,” he says. Many cricket stars have visited and donated personal effects to the museum. The names roll off Bhatia’s tongue: “Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Ian Chappell, Wasim Akram, Kumar Sangakkara, Jonty Rhodes.” Bhatia, 79, is the chairman of Dubai-based Alam Steel, one of Middle East’s largest steel suppliers, and has been part of projects such as the Burj Khalifa. Bhatia, who was born in Sindh and grew up in Ajmer, represented Mayo College as an all-rounder. He sailed to the UAE in the mid-1960s, just as the British were preparing to leave, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was drawing up his master plan to transform Dubai.
“Dubai back then was a big disappointment to those coming in from India, but I always believed the place had potential. Besides, I had to make a living. So, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did,” says Bhatia, who joined an insurance company. Since he sorely missed playing cricket, Bhatia says he would play at the Royal Air Force barracks in Dubai with the British and then graduated to playing for expatriate teams. “I played well, and while not much cricket was played in Dubai back then, my performances still made me popular. The game opened many doors for me,” says Bhatia, who credits his success to the lessons the game has taught him: fair play, discipline, and patience.
In the early 1980s, just as the Cricket Benefit Fund Series, the brainchild of Pakistan cricket legend Asif Iqbal and local businessman Abdul Rehman Bukhatir was taking off, Bhatia, who had by then quit his job and set up a trading firm, started hosting Indian and Pakistani cricketers at his home. In the early 2000s, his company also started sponsoring cricket tournaments and cricketing awards in the UAE. The millionaire, whose friends included the late Raj Singh Dungarpur, the former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and Bukhatir, aligned his passion with philanthropy in 2007 with the Cricket for Care Foundation, which provides equipment and training facilities to underprivileged children in several countries, including India. He is also in talks with the Mumbai Cricket Association to help them build a museum in the city. “They approached me last January, and we are figuring out the modalities,” says the businessman, who was in town recently for an event at the Cricket Club of India, of which he is an honorary member.
Also on the cards, in Dubai, is a “world-class” cricket museum along with the help of the UAE government. “That remains,” says Bhatia, “the ultimate dream.”