x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kerala Premier League looks to cast its net wider

Popularity of Twenty20 league in UAE is encouraging organisers to raise profile over next few years, writes Osman Samiuddin.

The Kerala Premier League Twenty20 tournament has captured the imagination of fans such as those of the Palakkad Harvestors.
The Kerala Premier League Twenty20 tournament has captured the imagination of fans such as those of the Palakkad Harvestors.

Without fail, every single person at the Kerala Premier League (KPL) last weekend - team owner, official, match referee, player, organiser - began by saying that the league was the biggest event they had ever come across on the local cricket scene.

That is par for the course because no premier league anywhere in the world has ever knowingly been downplayed.

But if Tariq Butt thinks so too, then that is the near-official seal of approval. Butt has been umpiring right across the UAE since 1979 and not too many events have passed him by; he is a match referee this season (that's right, they have match referees in this league).

"There was a 45-over tournament in 1989, between a Pakistan Emirates, Sri Lanka Emirates, India Emirates and the Rest of Emirates, which was fantastic," he said. "But after that this is the best. In current local cricket, this is easily the best, the prime tournament now."

If the organisers have done their job right, you might know something about the KPL, more in any case than the first season last year.

The bare details are that the league is the brainchild of six directors (all from Kerala of course), who have brought together 12 teams, all privately-owned franchises bought by corporate houses; the UAE's national team players are taking part, as are five Afghanistan players, one former Sri Lanka international, a sprinkling of former Indian first-class cricketers (teams have to play three players at least from the state of Kerala with UAE residency visas).

But that does not quite capture the get-go of this league, or the atmosphere at the matches staged at the ICC's Global Cricket Academy grounds in Dubai.

On Friday, four matches were played, two at a time on adjacent pitches. On top of the dressing rooms building in between, two MCs were providing, live and very enthusiastic, commentary for each game. Bollywood provided the soundtrack.

All matches, incidentally, are being streamed live on the internet.

For the second set of matches, early evening, more fans were shipped in though that is not to say the smaller crowds before did not make enough noise (the Friday before, organisers said, nearly 2,000 people turned up).

The rationale behind the league, said one of the directors, was to "promote Kerala cricket, because there are a lot of good players from there who are not getting a chance here to play regular, good quality cricket."

It has cost approximately Dh1.3 million to put the whole league together, 25 per cent of which has come from the franchise sales (all sold for five years and named after the districts of Kerala), some from the smaller sponsors and the rest - the vast amount, in fact - from the directors.

And it turns out that local cricketers of all nationalities are benefiting, becoming professional in a sense. They are all being paid per match, between Dh500 and Dh2,000. Some of the players have ended up being hired as employees by the companies they are playing for. The winning team will get Dh100,000, thought to be by far the highest local prize money ever (the runners-up get Dh60,000 and the total prize money is Dh185,000).

"It is an extraordinary opportunity for young players and local players here," said the former UAE fast bowler Ali Asad. "Mostly we play on cement wickets around the year, so this kind of tournament, on a ground like this in local cricket is difficult. It is expensive, not everyone can afford it. It's very important for players like us because if we stay in practice we'll help the national team as well."

The league's ambitions are startling. Four more teams are expected to be introduced next season.

The semi-finals and final will be played at the main Dubai Sports City Stadium.

And the one thing everyone wants to see is international players coming in (one owner says he was on the verge of signing Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal for this season; another says if his side gets to the semi-finals, two international players might be flown in) although the ICC and Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) will have a bigger say in that.

"We want to bring in international cricketers but there are restrictions," said Mohamed Lokhandwala, a committee member of the Dubai Cricket Council, and a guiding force with the KPL.

"Getting Indian cricketers here will not be easy although we have had very good responses. [Shanthakumaran] Sreesanth [the India pace bowler] was here, very keen to play, but we still have to get approval from the ECB."

Big, big plans, he ends, are in place and it does not need saying.