The emirate nation hosting IPL, an entire Indian tourney, is new. But cricket isn’t alien to the one-time British protectorate
The 13th edition of the Indian Premier League is currently on in the UAE. As a T20 cricket championship spanning 51 days, IPL 2020 is to end on November 10. Held typically in April-May every year, it features eight teams from as many cities of India playing in the double round-robin league and playoffs format.
This year’s league was originally conceived to be held in India (as usual) in March-April. Initially, BCCI, as the game’s governing body in the country, was forced to suspend IPL 2020 following the imposition of a nationwide lockdown in the midsummer following the outbreak of Covid-19. Subsequently, the tournament, after approval from the Government of India, was decided to be held from August 19, and in the United Arab Emirates.
That meant a foreign country hosting an IPL completely for the first time. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are the venues for IPL 2020, following the opening clash between Mumbai and Chennai. Precaution in the backdrop of the pandemic has led to the games being played behind closed doors, leaving the stadiums empty. Fake crowd noise is a feature of the matches.
Once BCCI chose to conduct IPL 2020 abroad, it found UAE the ideal venue. The Gulf country isn’t new to the championship: IPL 2014 was partly held in UAE because the first half of the league matches coincided with the general elections in India, leading to security issues. That year, 20 matches from April 16 to 30 were held in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, before India (10 venues) hosted the tourney’s 36-match second half starting from May 2.
UAE, effectively, is a neutral country for cricket, considering that its home team isn’t exactly formidable in the international arena (largely owing to a floating population of expatriates who form the majority). But there are stronger reasons to why the emirates are a good offshore venue for IPL.
* Diverse Population: UAE has people from no less than 85 countries from around the world, completely covering the planet’s cricket-playing countries—Commonwealth or otherwise. Asians live there in huge numbers, but then cricket venues witness huge turnout of fans from Australia, England and South Africa as well.
* Investment opportunities: UAE invariably sees big companies paying up for cricket championships, and ending up successful in their endeavours. The visits of tourists from other Arab countries to the match venues, not to speak of UAE ministers and other VIPs, add to not just the spirit of the game, but to its investment prospects as well. Not surprisingly, UAE hosts a lot of domestic cricket tournaments, with the game also becoming part of the academics in the country.
* Infrastructure & facilities: Even a casual look at UAE’s stadiums can reveal their world-class wherewithal and state-of-the-art features. With ultramodern facilities, they are easily capable of holding mega tournaments in cricket. Further, the 2009-established ICC Global Cricket Academy has some of the world’s finest features of the game, with two outdoor grounds along with indoor and outdoor training facilities. The country has a dozen major venues in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, besides in the emirates of Ajmal and Al Dhaid.
Obviously, it is only that UAE is definitely not new to cricket, though the novel coronavirus may have set unprecedented stipulations to IPL 13. While the UAE has seen a meteoric rise in its importance as a player in international cricket, there are interesting factors that cannot be ignored to maintain the status quo.
As a country on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula and founded in 1971 after winning independence from the British, the UAE began to sense the prospects of cricket becoming a noticeable game in its territory that very decade. This was owing to the immigration of workers from South Asia, where cricket was already popular.
By the mid-1970s, amid an oil boom, UAE saw the rise of a businessman. Abdul Rahman Bukhatir was primarily into construction activities, trading in cement, timber and steel before eventually becoming a pioneer for cricket across the emirates. A Pakistan-educated entrepreneur, he brought in international cricket teams and renowned players to the desert by the turn of the decade. So much so, in 1984, Sharjah hosted its first international series: Asia Cup, with India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as the participants.
A string of championships followed: Australasia Cup, Pepsi Cup and Coca-Cola Cup. However, into the second half of that decade and even early 1990s, bookmakers began to have their say, marking a low that spanned nearly one-and-a-half decades.
Then, in 1995, UAE showed signs of a comeback in cricket. Dubai became the headquarters for the ICC from London. The next year, Sharjah hosted an India-Pakistan charity series cricket. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, too, subsequently rose to the occasion.
In 2009, terrorist attack on visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore led to suspension of all international tours to Pakistan. The cricket board in Islamabad chose the Dubai Cricket Stadium for Pakistan to play Australia. Soon UAE began to host Pakistan’s T20 leagues. In 2014 came IPL’s first half in UAE.
Fortunes of UAE and India
The first time a UAE national side played a match was in 1976 against a Karachi-based first-class side called Pakistan International Airlines. The hosts didn’t perform well in that match, which was abandoned due to rain, but wealthy locals began investing in the sport. The Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium held its first major tournament (Asia Cup) in 1984. Five years thence, Emirates Cricket Board was formed.
UAE is an ICC associate since 1990, and has played 59 one-day internationals from 1994 till date. In 2014, it entered the world of T20 internationals, making 49 appearances in that version of the game. UAE has even a couple of world records to its credit: highest 7th-wicket batting partnership (107 runs) in World Cup and oldest player (Khurram Khan) to score an ODI century that was also his maiden.
For India, UAE has been a cricketing venue of mixed fortunes: winning the 1984 Asia Cup, losing the 1986 Australasia cup to Pakistan (with Javed Miandad’s last-ball six), Sachin Tendulkar’s ‘desert storm’ knock against Australia in 1998, skittled out by Sri Lanka for 54 in the final of Coca-Cola Champions Trophy in 2000….