DUBAI // Brett Lee fired down a trademark delivery, Yuvraj Singh played it, and a whole new innings began for domestic cricket in the emirate. The Australian pace bowler and the Indian batsman were flown in specially for the inauguration yesterday of a cricketing complex at The Sevens with six playing pitches for local teams.
In the past four years Dubai has made its name as an international cricket venue, hosting matches between top teams such as India, Pakistan and Australia at Dubai Sports City, but it was a bleak period for local cricket fanatics after the Dubai Cricket Council grounds at Al Jadaf were bulldozed in 2006 to make way for Healthcare City. Most clubs have had to make do with makeshift pitches, with most players using a tape-ball - a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape - for matches in car parks, or playing amid families enjoying picnics at the oval in Zabeel Park.
Many of the players in the UAE national team, which came within one match of qualifying for the World Twenty20 last month, are residents of Dubai and, like all keen cricketers in the city, have had to commute long distances to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi or Al Dhaid to practise or play matches. George Appleton, the captain of Darjeeling Cricket Club, said he was glad his side would now have a venue to play regular matches. "As soon as they start renting the grounds out we will be looking to use them," he said. "At least people will be playing cricket again.
However, he feels even more cricket venues are needed. "It will never be enough. There are so many people here who play cricket that there will never be enough, but anything is a positive." The new facility at The Sevens is reminiscent of the old Dubai Cricket Council grounds, with two fully grassed pitches, one of which will be floodlit, and four sand pitches. There will also be six practice wickets, as well as 12 dressing rooms in a shared pavilion, when the complex is completed.
Emirates Group, the owners of The Sevens complex, flew in some of the most recognisable players from the Indian Premier League franchise they sponsor, Kings XI Punjab, for yesterday's inauguration. "I know how popular the game is here so to be the first to bat on a wicket that will be at the centre of Dubai cricket for years to come is very special," said Yuvraj Singh, the India batsman. The completion of the complex was slowed down initially by lack of access to piped water since the site is 30 minutes from the city centre along the Dubai-Al Ain road. The need to resort to sweet water rather than piped grey water to irrigate the ground also raised costs considerably.
However, the new grounds will provide a valuable service to the "incredible" number of cricket fans in the city, according to Gary Chapman, the president of group services and Dnata for Emirates Group, who oversaw the project. "The very reason we created this facility here was to have something the community could use," Mr Chapman said. "The six pitches were based on input from the Dubai Cricket Council, who have been an integral part of the design, the development, all the way through to completion. The number of people with a passion for cricket here is incredible, so it is a very exciting day for us. It is with immense pride that we are able to provide fans with a base for the sport, which I hope will become a hub of the community for generations to come."
Qais Farooq, a Dubai-based Emirati player, is pleased his weekend games of cricket will no longer mean a long drive across the country. However, he hopes the inauguration of the new grounds will not be seen as the entire solution for developing the sport, which he believes is on the wane in the Emirates. "If you look at other countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, they have all developed the game extensively in the past five to 10 years. But in the UAE, as far as I have seen, cricket has been on the decline. Bringing up new grounds is exciting to a point, but there is still no structure in terms of developing the game here," said Mr Farooq, a former national team player.
He founded the Emirates Warriors team last year exclusively for Emiratis and UAE-born players, in the hope of spreading enthusiasm for the game. "We try and do whatever we can but, frankly speaking, the excitement I had for cricket has gone over the past five years," he said. The opening match at the new cricket complex will be played on Friday between the local Fly Emirates team and the Lord's Taverners, an English charity side featuring a number of former international cricketers.
Prices for public use of the pitches have yet to be set. firstname.lastname@example.org