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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UAE national team players are the ones hit hardest by demise of UAE T20x

The new tournament was dissolved last week, and the likes of Rohan Mustafa have been denied a chance to impress alongside cricket's household names on home soil

UAE captain Rohan Mustafa has been a transformative figure in the fortunes of the national team. Courtesy ICC
UAE captain Rohan Mustafa has been a transformative figure in the fortunes of the national team. Courtesy ICC

When the T10 League’s second season takes place in Sharjah this week, by all means celebrate Chris Gayle and Rashid Khan.

Or Alex Hales and Jason Roy. Or new young jets like Oshane Thomas, Hazratullah Zazai, and Sandeep Lamichhane. We are lucky to have them on our doorstep.

But, please, take a chance to look in on the UAE players, too. It will be worth your time. Because they can play a bit as well.

And, after that, there won’t be another chance to see them in such a high-profile, home-based event any time soon, given the collapse of the UAE T20x.

The next six weeks had been set to be a celebration of domestic cricket, in two funky, brash new events, with guaranteed places for UAE players alongside some of the greats of the game from elsewhere.

The T10 League has two places set aside for UAE players per squad, with one definite starter. The UAE T20x was set to have three, in among stars from all over the world. That would have been a large scale opportunity for 15 local players that has never existed before. And it might have opened doors for many of them.

The T20x was dissolved last week, just days before its scheduled draft, and barely a month till it was set to commence. Let’s not understate the point: it is a massive blow for the game here.

The organisers cited uncertainty created by the ICC recently mooting the idea of limiting the number of leagues players could play in worldwide – only to then defer a decision on that – for hamstringing their efforts.

But this tournament had been two years in the planning. Yet they reached until five days before the draft, by which time there were only two of five franchises sold, before having to cancel.

Whether UAE T20x and T10 could coexist in the same climate is questionable. T10, for all the problems it has suffered in recent months, precipitated by the resignation of its president and co-owner Salman Iqbal, has significant corporate funding. The teams' owners – as well as the league’s itself – pour substantial funds in bringing big-name players to Sharjah for it.

But the pool for corporate resources is only so big. To attract five more such owners to a new league, where costs might well have been even greater, or expect some of the T10 League owners to expand their interest to another tournament was always going to be a stretch. No wonder the Emirates Cricket Board were increasingly fearful about the commercial viability of it.

The ECB also apparently got cold feet over the potential of seeing their event played at largely empty stadiums.

That was highly possible, and they won’t have been the only ones. Of the four significant cricket events taking place on these shores so far this season – Asia Cup, Abu Dhabi T20, Afghanistan Premier League, and bilateral international series involving Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand – only the Asia Cup has seen consistently high turnouts.

T10 League could well be the next best attended, if last year is anything to go by, when two of the four nights were sell outs, and the other two close enough.

But why the necessity to play the games in the big grounds of Dubai, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi? Why the need to stage identikit tournaments in big stadia, in the hope people will come?

This was the ideal opportunity to offer something different, a new spectator experience that UAE cricket fans have rarely been offered. A boutique tournament, involving many new, undiscovered players, at gorgeous smaller venues like The Sevens, the ICC Academy, or the outside ovals at Abu Dhabi Cricket.

All of those are thriving hubs of their sporting communities the rest of the time anyway. They would have been picture perfect places to stage an event in which supporters could get close to their heroes – fan-engagement should be a pre-requisite for all the big-player contracts – and make some new ones in the form of the UAE players. In the UK, they call tournaments like these festival weeks, played at county out-grounds. They are the best cricket there is.

OPi Sports, the management company organising T20x, say they still believe in the concept of a tournament focused on development, and feel it could work elsewhere.

There are plenty of available options. Oman has handsome new grounds in Muscat, even if corporate spend or supporter numbers would be unlikely to match what would be sourced across the border in the Emirates.

Whether it is really feasible when there could be six places per squad for players with an auction-price ceiling of Dh1 million seems a little far-fetched, though.

More than anything, the failure to deliver the new tournament is failing the UAE’s players. They deserve their chance to shine.

This is a country that has more footfall of international cricketers and teams than any other. And that doesn’t need to be caveated with “for an Associate country”. That is for any country, anywhere.

It is no surprise that a country that does hospitality so well would be this welcoming. We are all grateful for that. But there comes a point where it is no longer impolite to be less deferential to your guests, and focus, just a little, on your own.

Abu Dhabi T20 had six teams from around the world. None from UAE. The Afghanistan Premier League? Played in its entirety in Sharjah, but local-resident Mohammed Naveed was the only home-based representative.

It turned out he was good enough to account for all of the competition’s best batsmen at various points. Who knew a UAE player had that in them? Well, those who observe local cricket have long known it.

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So we have not had the chance to see worthy cases like Rohan Mustafa, whose appointment as UAE captain two years ago has been transformative for the fortunes of the national team.

A man who has basically grown up with – and, more importantly, because of – UAE cricket, since his father died when he was just a teenager recently arrived in Sharjah.

A man who still has some rough edges, who sometimes opts not to heed the advice of an inner monologue. Like when he failed to filter out his disappointment at being overlooked for the player of the tournament award in favour of Nepal’s IPL-bound Lamichhane earlier this year.

When news of that filtered out, it made him persona non grata among Nepal’s impassioned supporters. Then he went to play there and won them over, first with the skill of his play, then by his honey-sweet nature.

He did win the player of the tournament award in that event. Without a thought, he traded in the motorbike he won, and gave the money to a local charity instead. And this is a man who would not, suffice it to say, have been getting one of the Dh1 million contracts had the T20x gone ahead.

He is a champion who deserves to be celebrated, and he is far from the only one within the game here. A pity, then, that he will keep travelling to do so, rather than get some air time on his own soil.