Cricket in the desert? That has to be a far-fetched dream. A game that sprouted on English village greens and transplanted to Commonwealth countries evokes images of a turf outfield, where white-flannelled cricketers batted and bowled on a 22-yard pitch rolled on a grassed square.
How can the game come to a desert country? It did. It came to Sharjah in the UAE in 1981. And today, a World Cup is played across three venues in the UAE. The best cricketers in the shortest format of cricket parade their skills in the stadiums of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
The first official One-day International in the UAE: Sri Lanka vs Pakistan in Sharjah
The Lord’s in England is the hallowed turf in cricket. Eden Gardens in India and the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia have their charms. Similarly, the Zayed Cricket Ground in Abu Dhabi, the Dubai International Stadium and the Sharjah Cricket Stadium have their own character.
Sharjah, the oldest and smallest, used to be a batsmen’s paradise with its short boundaries. Sixes don’t come easily in Abu Dhabi with its huge boundaries, where spectators are seated on mounds on either side of the stadium. Dubai is an amphitheatre with its unique ring of fire lighting system that casts no shadows. Cricket games at each of these venues are presented with their own unique challenges, yet the nature of the pitches remain similar.
As the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup games are underway in the UAE, cricket conversation veers around the slowness of the pitches, the low bounce and the dew factor. Much like the swing and seam on England and New Zealand pitches, and bounce of the strips in Australia and South Africa. Or the turn and bite in Indian and Pakistani tracks.
Coaches, captains and cricketers put their heads together to chalk out strategies to suit the UAE pitches. Do you have to go hard at the opposition during the powerplay? Or should they preserve wickets in the middle-overs to launch during the slog overs? These are questions that occupy cricketing minds. Because the UAE pitches pose a different set of questions that were asked during the Indian Premier League and the Pakistan Super League.
These strategies are stored on the laptops of cricket analysts for future reference. Since the UAE has become a regular stop for international cricketers, the nature of the pitches and the weather have to be factored into the planning. And that tells us that the UAE has become an international cricketing venue.
Cricket in the UAE was the brainchild of Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, who conceived the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series after an exhibition game in 1981. Although the initial contests mainly involved India and Pakistan, more teams made the Sharjah trip with the introduction of newer events. Sachin Tendulkar’s innings against the Australians in 1998, dubbed the Desert Storm, is still fresh in cricket watchers’ memory as much as Pakistani batsmen Javed Miandad’s last-ball six off India’s Chetan Sharma in 1986.
Sharjah cemented its place as a cricket venue, while Dubai and Abu Dhabi too embraced international cricket given the game’s massive popularity among the expatriates in the country. The UAE became an affiliate of the International Cricket Council in 1989 following the formation of the Emirates Cricket Board and even qualified for the World Cup in 1996.
When the ICC, cricket’s governing body, moved its headquarters to Dubai from London in 2005, cricket in the UAE received a fillip. And the UAE started to become a nerve centre for international cricket.
Big-time cricket came to Abu Dhabi with the inauguration of the Zayed Cricket Stadium in 2006. Dubai too became an international cricket venue after building a state-of-the-art stadium in 2009. With three international grade stadiums, the UAE soon became a sought-after venue for international matches. In 37 years, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium hosted 263 One-Day Internationals — a world record.
When Pakistan could not host Tests in their country, all their “home” series were staged in the UAE. Several One-Day International series and Twenty20 International series were hosted in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. In 2014, when Indian parliamentary elections clashed with the IPL, matches were moved to UAE. That experience persuaded IPL to host Season 13 in the biobubbles of the UAE, when COVID-19 raged around the world in 2020. And when the global pandemic interrupted IPL 2021, the remaining matches were played in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
All this burnished the UAE’s reputation as a premier cricketing destination. So when the T20 World Cup 2020 was delayed by a year, hosts India chose to organise it in the UAE this year. That brought 12 of the world’s best teams to the UAE for the global showpiece.
The UAE rolled out the welcome mat to the world’s best cricketers with world-class hotels, stadiums, and practice facilities. And the spectators came in droves. Some of the matches have been thrillers. Cricket has found a home in the UAE.
Who said cricket can’t be played in the desert?
COMMENT: A World Cup cricket in the UAE is a sign of trust
The ring of fire comes alive at the Dubai International Stadium as it hosts the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. Ring of fire, that’s what they call the modern floodlight system that casts no shadows. The lights had gone dark early last year when sports activities in the UAE ground to a halt following the COVID-19 pandemic. The lights came on in October 2020 when the Indian Premier League chose to stage the games in the UAE.
IPL 2020 was a roaring success. Its television viewership broke records; part of the reason was the absence of spectators. Adherence to COVID safety protocols kept the spectators away from the stadiums. But the biobubbles and secure environment in the UAE helped organise the tournament without a hitch.
Spectators were back when IPL returned to the UAE for the 2021 edition. The tournament in India was suspended after a COVID outbreak, and Phase 2 games were held in the UAE from September 19. Unlike last year, applause and cheers broke out in the stadiums when 50 per cent of seats were filled.
October 15 was different. Roars reverberated in the Dubai stadium when the Chennai Super Kings played the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL final. The stadium presented a heartwarming spectacle. Spectators filled the stadium as the permitted capacity was raised. Every boundary and every wicket was cheered enthusiastically.
Sport is at its finest when spectators enjoy the action. It was a sight robbed by the pandemic. With the return of spectators, sport regained a vital element: fan support. And that was made possible by the secure environment in the UAE.
Since August last year, tourists have made a beeline for Dubai. The COVID protocol and its strict adherence by residents made the emirate one of the safest places in the world at the time of a pandemic. So when IPL 2020 was organised here, it was no surprise. The same trust enabled the Board for Control of Cricket in India to stage IPL games in India this year too. Not just that, they trusted the UAE with the T20 World Cup, which is hosted by the Indian cricket board.
The World Cup takes place when life in Dubai and the UAE has returned to normal. Attendances in offices are full, schools have reopened, shopping malls are bustling with shoppers, families are thronging parks, and beachgoers seek out the sun, sand and surf. Life, as we know, has returned.
When the world’s best cricketers descend on the UAE, it’s a sign of trust. The trust that life can be lived without the fear of the pandemic.
FIRST PERSON: Back in the press box, after two decades
The press box is only for accredited media persons, but not everyone in there is a journalist. There will be scorers and statisticians; sometimes caters and other support staff too.
I haven’t been in a press box in a while, although I’ve remained a journalist. My last reporting assignment must have been the 1998 Qatar Open tennis. So it felt odd when I walked into the media enclosure at the Dubai International Stadium to cover the Indian Premier League matches in September.
All the faces were new to me, except one: a former Gulf News cricket writer. Over the next few days, I got to know some of them. When the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup rolled into town, cricket writers from around the world (well, from at least the 12 participating countries) filled the press boxes in the UAE stadiums.
The UAE became an ICC affiliate following the formation of the Emirates Cricket Board
Cricket writers fall into two categories: one very loqacious and keen to dispense their wisdom, and the other keeps to themselves, silently going about their work. All of them believe they are neutral observers, merely reporting on the game. But each of them is an ardent supporter of his team and a vociferous critic as well.
One journalist, who sat next to me, became very animated as the match headed towards a tight finish. He started telling the batsmen what exactly they should do. When I bade him farewell, the gentleman said: “Come for the next match if you want to see them [his team]1 lose again.”
Cricket reporting has changed. I spotted two journalists using some unfamiliar software on their laptops. Curiosity got the better of me, and I asked one of them what he does. He said he was a data journalist, and he sends out data as the match unfolds. The path of every delivery is tracked: whether it’s a dot ball, a single, a catch, sometimes even before a catch is taken, in the case of a skier. There’s a huge demand for the data, he added.
The press boxes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are very modern, with superb views of the pitch and the rest of the ground. The Sharjah Cricket Stadium is the oldest in the UAE. The press box reminded me of the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, India, when I covered junior cricket as a cub reporter. It’s an open-air press box. That means you can hear the crack of the bat as it meets the cricket ball, so also the cheering and yelling of the crowd. You are part of the action.
Journalists love their food, most of all coffee. The food at the press boxes is excellent. They even take extra care to provide fish dishes when Bangladesh and Sri Lanka teams are playing. Food is served right inside the Abu Dhabi and Dubai press boxes, and you can carry the plates to your desk. So you won’t miss the action while you wolf down lasagne or roti and sabzi (vegetable curry).
So how does it feel to be back in the press box? I love it. Television may bring sports to your smartphones and drawing-rooms, but there’s nothing quite like live-action. It has a unique charm — nothing like seeing with your eyes. Seeing is believing.
TIMELINE: How cricket took roots in the UAE
Compiled by Abdul Kareem, Head of Archive
■ 1981: A Sunil Gavaskar XI played the Javed Miandad XI on a patch of grass in front of over 8,000 fans at the new Sharjah Cricket Stadium. The fixture was the earliest template for matches involving some of the stars of the game from across the world.
■ 1984: The first official One-day International was played in Sharjah with Sri Lanka beating Pakistan by five wickets. Now more than 37 years later, the ground holds the world record for hosting the most number of ODIs.
■ 1989: The Emirates Cricket Board was formed and joined the ICC as an Affiliate member.
■ 1994: A national cricket team, led by Sultan Zarawani, competed at the ICC Trophy in Kenya. The UAE beat the home team in the final to celebrate qualifying for the World Cup for the first time.
■ 1996: A debut appearance at the World Cup brought its share of challenges for the national team against the top sides. However, they gained their first ODI victory. Saleem Raza hit six sixes in an innings of 84 as they beat the Netherlands by seven wickets in Lahore.
■ 2005: It was a landmark year as the ICC, world governing body of the game, closed their office at the Nursery End at Lord’s and moved to Dubai. They initially moved to a temporary office in Al Thuraya Tower in Media City, before moving inside the Dubai Sports City four years later.
■ 2006: General Pervez Musharraf, in his capacity as the Pakistan president, was in attendance as the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi was inaugurated. The new ground, with its state-of-the art facilities, played host to a two-match ODI series between India and Pakistan.
■ 2009: The UAE became a ‘home’ for Pakistan as international teams refused to tour after a terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus — and the status continued for the next 10 years.
■ 2013: The UAE national team qualified for the Twenty20 World Cup for the first time as they made the cut from a 16-team competition in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It set up the busiest year in international cricket for the UAE.
■ 2014: The UAE scaled another peak before playing the T20 World Cup, the team under captain Khurram Khan qualified for the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand.
It was a significant year for the UAE as they staged the Under-19 World Cup, followed by a leg of the IPL for the first time. The first 20 games of the tournament were shifted to the UAE as the dates clashed with the parliamentary elections in India — and all matches were played in front of packed stadiums.
■ 2015: The UAE national team, under the captaincy of Mohammed Tauqir, played their second 50-over World Cup after a gap of 19 years. The UAE lost all the matches in Australia and New Zealand.
■ 2016: The Pakistan Super League was launched in Dubai with fanfare but five years down the line, it returned to the homeland.
■ 2017: The UAE had its own franchise league for the first time when the T10 League was launched in Sharjah in December. The 10-over competition was sanctioned by the ECB and ICC, but financed by the franchise owners. The competition has eventually moved to Abu Dhabi after two seasons in Sharjah.
■ 2018: The multi-nation Asia Cup was played in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while India and Pakistan faced off twice in front of the packed Dubai International Stadium. India beat Bangladesh by a wafer-thin margin in the final. UAE, as the host country, could not feature as they were beaten by Hong Kong in the final of the qualifying tournament in Malaysia.
■ 2020: It was the year when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and the IPL was suspended for months. It was eventually shifted outside India amid elaborate biosecurity measures in the UAE and the competition was deemed an unqualified success.
■ 2021: The 50th anniversary of the formation of the UAE, along with the year of Expo 2020, is their busiest year as hosts. While Abu Dhabi has hosted the remaining leg of Pakistan Super League in June, the UAE hosted the second phase of IPL 2021 and the T20 World Cup in October-November.