x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All work makes day's play an empty adventure at Dubai cricket stadium

Ahmed Rizvi discovers cricket is a low priority on weekdays, even for South Asian expatriates, which explains a sparsely filled Dubai stadium.

With work consuming most of the expatriates’ time on a weekday, Thursday’s action between Pakistan and Sri Lanka was only watched by a few hundred at the Dubai stadium.
With work consuming most of the expatriates’ time on a weekday, Thursday’s action between Pakistan and Sri Lanka was only watched by a few hundred at the Dubai stadium.

Mike Smith was an unlikely visitor to the Dubai International Cricket Stadium this week.

With his wife and three children in tow, the Englishman had come to watch Pakistan and Sri Lanka play cricket.

It seemed a bit strange.

The UAE has a sizeable population of Pakistani and Sri Lankan expatriates, but barring a couple of hundred, they had decided to give the opening day of the second Test on Wednesday a miss. And yet this man, with no affiliation to the two nations, had come down with his family.

"I don't really have to be a supporter of one of the teams to be here," Smith said. "Not often do you get a chance to watch international cricket in this part of the world, especially Test cricket; it is still the pinnacle of the sport. So a good way to spend the afternoon."

The country's cricket fans, however, do not seem to share that opinion. Or they do, but are hampered by their circumstances.

"Everyone in the UAE, the expatriates, they are here on an employment visa," Dilawar Mani, the chief executive of the Emirates Cricket Board, said. "People just can't take time off. There are some diehards and fanatics, who will, but you can count them on one hand. So I would not put this down to any other reason.

"There is certainly a lot of interest in cricket and a lot of interest in the series."

Rizwan Ahmed is one of the handful of fanatics Mani referred to. A driver, he had asked one of his friends to fill in for him; the friend will come to the game on Saturday and Ahmed will work for him.

"I just wanted to come here to support our team," said Ahmed, who is an avowed fan of Shahid Afridi, the colourful Pakistan all-rounder. "I wish Afridi was here, but we have the other players. This is the Pakistan team and they are not getting much support from anyone these days.

"They cannot even play at home. So we should come here to support them. I love cricket, but I also believe it is our duty to support the team during these times."

Khurram Baig, an IT professional, also wishes he could spare the time to watch some of the cricket. Back home in Lahore, he was a regular at the international matches, especially during his college days.

"The circumstances are very different now.

"I usually leave home at six in the morning and on most days, I am not back until eight in the night," he said. "Some days, it could be even later.

"I live in Dubai, but most of the work nowadays is in Abu Dhabi, so I have to drive back and forth every day. I try to see the scores online whenever I get a chance so that I know what is happening."

Baig does not see himself going for the match even on Friday or Saturday, when he is not working.

"I have a family here, my wife and daughter. I don't give them any time during the week and the least I can do is be with them on the weekends, or else they will pack their backs and return home."

While the fans in the UAE have their reasons for not being at the Test matches, interest in the original format of the game has been dwindling across the world.

The five-day game, invented in the days of horses and carts, remains a passion of the purists alone; the modern generation struggles for time to keep up.

England seems to be the only nation still drawing crowds for that ultimate test of a cricketer's mettle through five usually engrossing days of ebbs and flows.

The Marylebone Cricket Club, the guardians of cricket's rules, conducted a study in 2009 which revealed interest in Test cricket remains high - more than 81 per cent of the Indian fans said they follow Test cricket "regularly" - but this was not reflected in crowd numbers.

"The Test matches are played during working days, during daylight hours, during the middle of the week," Mani said. "So obviously you would not expect fans to be able to come to the matches in numbers.

"However, you may have noticed that on Friday in Abu Dhabi [during the first Test of the series], we had extremely full houses. I would expect the same in Dubai and, in fact, even better in Sharjah because the match there will be played over Eid holidays."

The MCC have been experimenting with pink balls, which could eventually lead to day-night Test matches. Fans can then attend Test matches without having to take time off from work.

Sir Geoffrey Boycott, the former England opening batsman, said recently: "Everywhere crowds are down except in England and Australia ... we have to tweak it a bit or do something to get [people into the grounds] or there will be hardly anybody watching except television in 20 or 30 years time."

Trying telling that to the Barmy Army. Paul Burnham, the co-founder of the group of fans who have achieved cult status by following the England team around the globe, said Test cricket is the No 1 form of the game. He expects two-thirds of the organisation's 3,000 paid members to make the trip to the UAE next year for the three-Test match series.

"I'm hoping the Barmy Army will be over in large numbers," Burnham said. "England have never played Test cricket at two of the grounds [Zayed Cricket Stadium and the Dubai International Cricket Stadium] so a few people will want to tick that box. I think the atmosphere in Dubai could be really good once we get Jimmy [the ring leader of the organisation] and the band over there singing. They have great acoustics at that stadium and it will certainly be better than the atmosphere there right now."

Burnham concedes he expects the turn out to be larger for England's series with Sri Lanka in March but nothing will compare to the 8,000-strong support they took to Australia for the Ashes last year. "The Sri Lanka tour will be more popular [than the UAE tour] because fans know what they are getting with Sri Lanka as they have been there before. But unlike Sri Lanka, accommodation should not be a problem in the UAE and once the English winter sets in I think people will be keen to get out and lots will book up last minute."

Simon Prodger has already booked for him and his wife, Lyn, to stay at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Abu Dhabi for the Test match in the capital.

"It's an opportunity for me to see England play in a new venue, for them and in the middle of a UK winter, it's always nice to get some winter sun," Prodger, 51, said.

"Personally, I don't have time to travel to the more traditional destinations to watch England over an extended period, so coming to the UAE is a perfect compromise because it gives us good connections with sensible flying times to a region of the world that is unique, culturally and historically.

"Added to this, the fact that UAE is fast becoming synonymous with world-class sport played in world class stadiums and facilities … why wouldn't we want to come?"

"My feeling is that a good number of Brits will make the trip, though maybe not via organised travel groups so much because the entire tour is only played at two venues, both within easy reach of each other and both in easy access of the UK. We're really looking forward to Abu Dhabi - not just the cricket, but the sun, the atmosphere and the cultural environment as well."

Umar Gul, the Pakistan bowler who took three wickets on the first day of the ongoing second Test, believes there are reasons for the lack of fans at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.

"There is still a lot of interest in Test cricket," Gul said. "The problem here is, the majority of the Asian expatriates, whether they be Indian, Pakistanis or Sri Lankans, they belong to the working class. They get just one or two days off a week, Friday and Saturday.

"So I hope they will come on Friday and Saturday, just like they did in Abu Dhabi. We saw a really good crowd there and hopefully we will get the same number of fans here as well."

Mani echoed that optimism. "It has nothing to do with that [lack of interest in Test cricket]," he said. "The issue is that people are working. You will see that over the weekend. I will be really surprised if Dubai doesn't have more or less a full house [on Friday]."


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