x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Emirates Palace opens gates to welcome back UAE cricket

A corporate tournament is being played at the picturesque venue since 2011 as a small step towards broadening the base for the 'sociable game'.

An eight-team tournament marked the return of cricket to the Emirates Palace ground. Micaela Colace for The National
An eight-team tournament marked the return of cricket to the Emirates Palace ground. Micaela Colace for The National

ABU DHABI // More than 16 months after the last ball was bowled on the cricket pitch at the Emirates Palace hotel, the venue is back in action.

The hotel withdrew the pitch from public use in October 2011, leaving many local teams such as the British School Al Khubairat, without a ground.

But an eight-team corporate tournament - organised by David Willis, the older brother of former England captain Bob - has seen play return to the picturesque venue.

It is all part of steps being made within the UAE cricket community to get more Westerners playing the game.

"One thing was to bring back the palace grounds [as a place] to play cricket and the other was to try to make the game more appealing and attractive to the western audience," Willis said.

"They have stopped playing in the UAE because the facilities have not been attractive and the culture of cricket has been very subcontinental.

"I was surprised when I arrived, very few Westerners actually played the game.

"It is almost entirely a subcontinent game. I do understand historically the reasons for this."

Willis hopes the location of the pitch - with the sea on one side and views of the breakwater at Marina Mall - will be a factor in drawing amateur cricketers into action. It was described in 2011 by Henry Blofeld, the legendary English commentator - as "the most beautiful countrified cricket ground you've ever seen".

It is in sharp contrast to many other venues in the country.

Willis said: "Until very recently the facilities have not been very good, playing on the concrete pitches in the dust. As you know it is a very sociable game.

"Cricket teams like to bring their wives, girlfriends and children and families along. They will have a picnic and watch the match and so on.

"So that's exactly what we are seeing in this competition when some teams brought their wives, girlfriends, children and families. This is exactly what we want.

"To do that, I had to select one of the prettiest grounds. It is a very beautiful cricket field and it is ideal to bringing the families back to cricket."

The Emirates Palace Cricket Tournament is a corporate event, with eight teams involved, and Willis is already making plans for another, larger, event in November.

"I am looking at a bigger tournament using the Zayed Cricket Stadium and the ADCC Nursery Oval and then moving to the palace grounds for the final stage of the competition," he said.

Although the tournament has not been organised by the Emirates Cricket Board, David East, its newly arrived chief executive, has similar plans for engaging the western expatriate community.

"The level of enthusiasm here is just astonishing for the sport. Certainly I would like to broaden the base of cricket here," he said.

"The cricket that's played here is primarily by participants from the subcontinent and it's recreational.

"I would like to broaden that interest to the British, South African, Australian communities as well, see if we can get them involved.

"It's a fantastic amount of cricket that's been played here. I just want to see it get stronger and stronger."

apassela@thenational.ae

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