x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Not enough local interest in cricket

Cricket will not grow in the UAE unless the administrators work harder to attract the indigenous population the sport.

UAE cricketers are used to playing in front of near-empty stadiums despite their success in the sport in recent times. Sammy Dallal / The National
UAE cricketers are used to playing in front of near-empty stadiums despite their success in the sport in recent times. Sammy Dallal / The National

In about three weeks, the UAE could be preparing to play at three different World Cup tournaments in cricket.

They will be competing in the qualifiers for the one-day World Cup and the Twenty20 World Cup, while they will take part in the Under 19 World Cup, for which they are hosts.

To reach all three would be an entirely magnificent achievement and, as a consequence, the excitement is tangible, is it not?

No. Unfortunately, it is not. Does anyone actually care? Sometimes it feels like nobody does.

Even though they are among the most deserving, the UAE national cricketers must be the most under-appreciated sports people around.

They have the highest success-rate to hours-spent-in-the-office ratio of anyone, yet remain basically anonymous.

If the flight crew, catering staff and bank clerks do earn one of the two qualifying places for the World Cup at the tournament starting in New Zealand on Monday, perhaps they finally will get the credit from the wider public they deserve.

Do not hold your breath, though. We have been here before, after all.

This competition, which was formerly known as the ICC Trophy, has had various guises since it was first played in Worcester in England in 1979.

It has had seven different winners, six of whom have gone on to flourish to varying degrees – while the other one stood still.

Sri Lanka, the first winners, Zimbabwe, the three-time champions, and Bangladesh all went on to gain Test status – the ultimate aim of any developing cricket ­nation.

They were three of the first four nations to win this competition. The most recent three, Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland, have each made multiple trips to World Cups. All have professionalised their cricket operations, at least at national team level.

The odd one out? The UAE.

The national team did not just sneak in to the 1996 World Cup as one of the best-placed losers. Sultan Zarawani’s side romped home by beating Kenya, the host nation of the 1994 Trophy, in the final in Nairobi.

As with all the other winners, was this the start of something significant? A bridge to greater things? Simply, no.

The national team have not made it back to the big show since, have never had official one-day international status – let alone fostered hopes of becoming a Test nation – and remain a bunch of hardy ­amateurs.

The 20-year stasis contrasts starkly with what else has been going on, even on the nation’s doorstep, in the intervening time.

Afghanistan, for example, were this month accepted into the Asia Cup, the continent’s premier one-day international tournament, as the fifth side along with the Test nations.

It is not difficult to see that becoming a permanent arrangement, given the inexorable rise the sport has enjoyed in a nation still suffering the ravages of war.

The Afghans are a decent team who will get better and – crucially, given how broadcasters pilot the sport – they are box office.

Yet Afghanistan was still a good seven years away from even setting up a formal national team when the UAE won the 1994 trophy.

They are not the only Asian side who have thrived where the UAE has stood still. Aaqib Javed, the UAE coach, rates Nepal as one of the team’s main rivals for qualification in New Zealand. Where the national team once had no worries over facing the Nepalese, recent history suggests the two teams are evenly matched.

So even, in fact, they tied the most recent ACC Trophy final – a feat that once would have seen both qualify for the Asia Cup, not Afghanistan.

While the matches they play at senior level are the apex of the development triangle, Nepal have clearly made the greater strides.

The stadiums in the UAE are the envy of many a Test nation, let alone Nepal, but they are empty when the national team play in them. Literally, no one, other than the ground staff, watches.

Nepal, by contrast, regularly attract thousands to home matches in Kathmandu. Even when they played a fixture on nominal neutral territory, against Afghanistan in the World T20 qualifier in Sharjah at the end of last year, the stands were packed. The boom will be sonic if they qualify for the World Cup.

If the UAE do the same? Maybe people will express a passing interest.

The indigenous population, whose disregard for the game only mirrors that shown towards them by the sport’s rulers here for far too long, may or may not find out that there is a team representing the nation at a major sporting event.

Whatever happens, the players involved in pursuing that goal merit a far greater profile.