x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fans in UAE drawn to IPL like moths to a bright light

It is too simplistic to say it is predominantly the UAE’s taxi drivers or Asian construction workers are the only ones obsessed with cricket’s equivalent of football’s English Premier League.

To understand how IPL fever has gripped the UAE just watch a crowd before the start of Imatch, such as the one between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders at Sharjah Cricket Stadium in Sharjah on April 24, 2014. Pawan Singh / The National
To understand how IPL fever has gripped the UAE just watch a crowd before the start of Imatch, such as the one between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders at Sharjah Cricket Stadium in Sharjah on April 24, 2014. Pawan Singh / The National

The Dubai taxi driver said: “Have you been waiting long?”

Seeing the long line of people behind me, he did not wait for an answer.

“They’re all watching the cricket,” he said, and began laughing.

The Indian Premier League (IPL), in the UAE for 15 days, had brought Dubai to something of a standstill.

It is too simplistic to say it is predominantly the city’s taxi drivers, or Asian construction workers, who are obsessed with cricket’s equivalent of football’s English Premier League.

Just imagine if Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs played in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Thursday’s big IPL match saw the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) against Kolkata Knight Riders in Sharjah.

In Bur Dubai, fans at Filli Cafe were glued to one small television screen.

“I’ve been following all the matches,” Vyshakh Nirmalan said.

“Today, as it’s the weekend, it’s easier. I’ll watch the first innings here and then maybe move on somewhere else to meet friends for the second innings.”

Despite being from Mumbai, Nirmalan, 27, supports Punjab and said he was among the lucky ones and got his hands on some increasingly scarce tickets.

“Last week I went to the International Stadium [in Dubai] to watch the Mumbai Indians against RCB,” he said.

“It was really fantastic. Bringing the tournament here has been tremendous. If you go there and watch the matches live, it’s a big thing. You can see how much it means to the crowd.”

Nirmalan works for First Gulf Bank, has lived in the UAE for five years and said that cricket is a gift for many young professionals and workers in Dubai.

“Cricket is one game you can really get into for hours,” Nirmalan said. “I might support one team and my friend might support another, but we all still watch together and, at the end, it’s just fun for everyone.”

Sitting next to him, his friend Joaquim Mascarenhas, an RCB supporter, was enjoying what was unfolding on the screen.

“RCB have a very good batting line-up,” the man from Goa said. “I’m sure they’re going to chase this down. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

His confidence would prove to be badly misplaced, Kolkata ultimately winning by two runs in stunning fashion.

Still, the IPL’s stint in Dubai has already paid dividends for Mascarenhas, 28, who works as a software engineer for Emirates Airline.

“It’s great that it came here to the UAE because I could watch some of the matches live,” he said. “I went to the Dubai stadium last week to watch Kolkata Knight Riders against Delhi Daredevils, and Royal Challengers Bangalore against Mumbai Indians.”

That day, his favourites had won, but it is about more than just results. Few could have hoped to catch some of the game’s greatest players, who are in IPL action, so far from India.

“It’s like a festival. You know how popular it is. All the big stars are here,” Mascarenhas said. “The entire Indian team is here, including the captain, MS Dhoni, so definitely everybody wants to watch.”

Everybody wants to, but so many have missed out. Tickets for the 20 matches, which end on Wednesday, have been like gold dust.

“I wish I could be in the stadium right now,” said Yousaf Yaqoob, 27. “But all the tickets are sold out.”

Yaqoob, a fan of RCB, is from Pakistan but said that love of cricket transcends political boundaries.

“None of the Pakistani players are here, but I still love watching cricket. It’s all about the game,” said Yaqoob, who works at Dubai airport. “It’s a great social activity. You get together with people from different communities, you sit together and have a good chitchat, as well as supporting your team.”

He was born and raised in Dubai, but he appreciates that cricket can fill an emotional void for many others whose parents, wives and children, and brothers and sisters, remain far away.

“A lot of people don’t have their families here,” he said. “You’re getting used to a new place and watching cricket with friends can help. Eighty or 90 per cent of the Indian and Pakistani community love watching cricket.”

As Kolkata tore into the RCB batting line up, those fans were watching all across town.

In Satwa, a group of fans squeezed into a small sandwich and juice cafe. “We can’t get tickets, but this is exciting for us,” said Hussein Ahmad Khan, a driver for a building maintenance company. “I am from Pakistan, but all cricket fans are lucky to watch this.”

A round of applause went up after Vinay Kumar’s last over left RCB just short of their target, sparking joy among Kolkata players and fans in Sharjah – and Dubai, Abu Dhabi and beyond.

“Not just in the UAE, across India, across the world, fans are following this IPL tournament every year,” Mascarenhas said in Bur Dubai. “I’ve been following it for the last seven years and, of course, I’ll continue following it after the IPL leaves the UAE.”

While the big show is in town, though, make sure you book your taxis nice and early.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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