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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

For the love of the game: Danube Group's Anis Sajan on his passion for indoor cricket

Ahead of the Indoor Cricket World Cup in Dubai, the businessman explains how a competitive spirit has seen him invest large amounts in the sport in recent years. 

Indoor cricket has become a passion of Anis Sajan, the managing director of Danube Group. Pawan Singh / The National
Indoor cricket has become a passion of Anis Sajan, the managing director of Danube Group. Pawan Singh / The National

The World Indoor Cricket Federation are proud of their fact theirs is an amateur pursuit. So much so, in the information pack they sent out ahead of the World Cup, they list the fact players pay their own way to get to the tournament as a virtue.

“Elite indoor cricketers self-fund their participation through their local centre, regional, state and national championships level before also paying to represent their country at the World Cup,” the WICF write.

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Even though it is a format enjoyed by thousands worldwide, the indoor game generally remains in the margins, beyond the view of big corporate investors.

One of the New Zealand players, for example, set up a fundraising page online to help get her to Dubai for the World Cup, which starts on Saturday at Insportz in Al Quoz. The donations of 22 people took her up to the $840 (Dh2,250) required for her to play.

England’s vice-captain’s trip, meanwhile, has been sponsored by a car fleet solutions firm local to him in the UK.

As such, the world of indoor cricket might have been surprised by what they found when they touched down in the UAE this week.

Since Insportz opened in 1996, a variety of captains of industry have competed to get the better of each other on the court.

It reached the point where leading players are paid, and even earn visas and full-time employment via their exploits inside the tension netting.

Anis Sajan, the managing director of Danube Group who is India’s team mentor at the World Cup, is an indoor cricket enthusiast with deep pockets. He has rooms full of trophies to show for it.

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Up until he closed his cricket teams in 2016, Sajan was spending Dh2 million per year on his pastime, employing 18 players for his outdoor side, and 12 for his indoor one.

Around Dh500,000 of that annual budget went exclusively on the indoor team, which has been his primary love for the past 20 years.

So besotted is he with the game, he has boxes of new, yellow indoor cricket balls, manufactured in Australia, couriered 12,000kms just for his side to practice with.

The Danube head office is liberally decorated with trophies his cricket teams have won, and he says this accounts for a mere 20 per cent of their haul. There are three more glass showcases full at his home.

“Cricket is my passion, and I am able to burn out my energy while achieving success,” Sajan said.

“I am proud to say that, in the 20 years of cricket I have played indoor, I only remember the defeats. They all registered in my heart.”

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Sajan says he has lost just 40 games in the past two decades, equating to a win rate of approximately 90 per cent. They all grate. “I have sleepless nights over indoor cricket,” he said.

It all started when he was taken along to a game by a friend when he was 25. He broke his glasses while fielding in his first game – and fell in love with it.

“Indoor cricket started at 8pm, so after work I could go and play,” he said.

“I started a team with eight boys, and the first tournament I played, I won. That gave me a spark. This was fast cricket, over within one and a half hours, and it takes a lot out of your body.

“I had employees playing for the past 10 years. I used to reward them so they were motivated to play better. They used to spend their money on petrol to come and play.”

Needless to say, Sajan is a savvy businessman. He runs one of the most visible business empires in Dubai – Danube sponsor over 700 bus stops in the city, have their own Metro station next to the Jebel Ali head office, as well as a broad commercial presence on TV and radio.

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And yet, the idea he should see a return on investment for his outlay on cricket is anathema to him.

“Money, I spent quite a lot, but money wasn’t important, what was important was that this was my passion,” he said.

It goes without saying the players are grateful for the environment Sajan helped create.

When companies such as DBMSC Steel and Petromann started attempting to compete with Sajan, more players benefitted.

“Payment was based on how we used to fare in the tournament,” Rohan Nayak, a DBMSC player who is an assistant coach of the UAE at the World Cup, said.

“If we won the tournament, we would get an amount, and there was a base amount to cover allowances for travel to games and practice.

“Back then, eight or nine years ago, not everyone used to make good money in terms of work here.

“It was great there were companies who would pay players back then. We felt the passion the owners felt for the game.”

For years UAE cricket was sustained by benefactors such as Sajan employing talented cricketers in their companies. When he left the game last year, there was suddenly a cavernous hole.

The buzz Sajan has had from his involvement with India in the indoor cricket World Cup, though, has revived his passion for the game, and he is planning on a return.

“The baby inside my stomach has already started kicking,” he said.

The Indoor Cricket World Cup

When: September 16-23

Where: Insportz, Dubai

Indoor cricket World Cup:
Insportz, Dubai, September 16-23

UAE fixtures:
Men

Saturday, September 16 – 1.45pm, v New Zealand
Sunday, September 17 – 10.30am, v Australia; 3.45pm, v South Africa
Monday, September 18 – 2pm, v England; 7.15pm, v India
Tuesday, September 19 – 12.15pm, v Singapore; 5.30pm, v Sri Lanka
Thursday, September 21 – 2pm v Malaysia
Friday, September 22 – 3.30pm, semi-final
Saturday, September 23 – 3pm, grand final

Women
Saturday, September 16 – 5.15pm, v Australia
Sunday, September 17 – 2pm, v South Africa; 7.15pm, v New Zealand
Monday, September 18 – 5.30pm, v England
Tuesday, September 19 – 10.30am, v New Zealand; 3.45pm, v South Africa
Thursday, September 21 – 12.15pm, v Australia
Friday, September 22 – 1.30pm, semi-final
Saturday, September 23 – 1pm, grand final