ABU DHABI // The UAE is aiming to have at least 10 fully functional cricket grounds up and running by 2014 as it readies itself to become a major cricket destination again over the next three years.
As well as two high-profile international series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka and Pakistan and England, the region will host a 16-team qualifier for the World T20 in March, "the biggest event here up to that point," according to Dilawar Mani, CEO of the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB). And in 2014, the region will host a bigger event, a showcase of the game's leading young talent, the Under 19 Cricket World Cup.
Currently there are five operating grounds across the UAE, a stadium each in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and two grounds at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai.
Mani is overseeing the development of two more grounds next to Abu Dhabi's Zayed Cricket Stadium, one of which is "80 per cent ready and the second we are trying to milestone within 6-8 months from November so by next June, we should have three grounds in Abu Dhabi."
Equally ambitious plans are underway in Sharjah where veteran administrator Mazhar Khan is developing the Al Dhaid Cricket Village near Sharjah. The 200,000 square metre plot of land, surrounded by palm trees, will hold at least four turf wicket grounds by the end of 2013.
It is equipped with floodlights and has already hosted Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy games in December 2008, as well as English club sides and the MCC.
"We already have one turf ground there and five cement wickets, but work is being carried out on two already and we plan to have four in total by the time the U19 World Cup comes around," Mazhar said.
The UAE has also just been awarded the next ACC Trophy, which will see Afghanistan, the UAE and Hong Kong among others, play off next winter.
The number of grounds is a minimum requirement of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for countries hosting major global events. "The U19 World Cup was awarded in the last batch of allocations [in 2006]," said Mani. "It will be fantastic, a very high-profile tournament and a huge thing for the UAE. This is the profiling of the UAE and the multiple venues."
The grounds in Abu Dhabi are being developed with funding help from the ICC. Twelve countries applied last year to the ICC development funding facility and only the UAE's application was successful.
"We're spending US$1.5 million on development and that also includes a double-sided pavilion [the two grounds in Abu Dhabi are next to each other so that one pavilion serves two grounds]," said Mani.
"Our undertaking was that if the grounds are ready, they will be there for the U19 World Cup, but irrespective of that, we were developing these whether or not we had the funding."
The security situation in Pakistan means that in the mid-term at least, the UAE remains the likeliest substitute as a temporary 'home' venue.
Though the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is not keen to firm up even a short-term deal to treat the UAE as home (board officials insist that will send out the wrong signal for any eventual return of cricket to Pakistan) the UAE is guaranteed to feature in future commitments.
Next year, for example, Australia is due to play in Pakistan and it is almost inconceivable that the UAE will not feature in negotiations over a venue. At some point in the future a bid for a bigger global event such as a World T20, cannot be ruled out.
"If we could bring that to the UAE, a T20 World Cup being played over two weeks, the profiling for the nation will be phenomenal," said Mani.
For now, he acknowledged that such a "jam-packed schedule" was something he couldn't have imagined when Abu Dhabi began the region's return to the big time with the 2006 ODI series between India and Pakistan. "I didn't imagine we'd be as busy as this," Mani said.
"We started with a big bang, with that India-Pakistan series. I had the intention of building Abu Dhabi's profile at the time. Sharjah was in a state of disrepair and Dubai wasn't ready. The idea was to continue inviting teams and keep building profile but now with more venues available and the situation in Pakistan, we've got a huge amount of cricket which I never anticipated."