x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Summer cricket in Ramadan is part of the sport's narrative in UAE

The story of cricket being played in the United Arab Emirates is incomplete without the annual Ramadan tournaments.

The quality of cricket being played during the Holy Month of Ramadan has improved over recent years, participants say.
The quality of cricket being played during the Holy Month of Ramadan has improved over recent years, participants say.

Long ago cricket ceased to be a novelty to the region. Indeed it houses one of the game's most iconic venues in Sharjah, a place where legends were created and epic tales written, of precisely the kind sport lives off.

So Abu Dhabi's Zayed Cricket Stadium is not out of place; why should such an impressive venue not be found here after all?

Eventually the stadium must house a history as glittering as the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and entirely befitting of its architecture.

Two high-profile series this winter involving two of the world's best sides and one of its most fascinating might just begin the process.

Last Thursday night, during the final of the Ramadan night tournament - three words forming a sentence previously used only in Pakistan - matters afoot did not carry such import.

But they were significant for some nonetheless. Neither of the two sides - United Bank Limited (UBL) and Eurocon Alubond - are jokers; far from it, given the liberal sprinkling of Pakistani first-class cricketers - not an endangered species admittedly - and former internationals.

It is serious stuff, as Azeem Ghumman, recently an Under 19 Pakistan and Hyderabad captain, explains. "I actually left a league in England to come and play here. There were a couple of players from Hyderabad who played here last season and I saw the improvement in them through the season back home."

Ghumman, who finished the final with an unbeaten 22 to steer Eurocon to the title, is getting set for a domestic Twenty20 competition in Pakistan in September, a high-profile event in the country.

The standards here, he says, have been good enough to provide a useful warm-up for a big season. The financial incentives, he adds, have not been bad either.

Pakistan, of course, has a special affinity for the region. Top players have regularly made forays into the bustling club cricket scene.

"Lots of players come here from Pakistan, big names such as Mohammad Sami, Taufeeq Umar and Hasan Raza," said Shahnawaz Hakim, the veteran cricket coordinator for the Abu Dhabi Cricket Council.

Bilal Irshad, Mohammad Yousuf's nephew, has been here this season and was named man of the tournament after a prolific stint.

As in Pakistan, Ramadan is big for night cricket.

"There are always big tournaments here in Ramadan," said Hakeem. "We started doing this from 2004 and this is the second under this sponsor with 20 clubs participating."

The Ramadan schedule is heavy enough for Dilawar Mani, the Emirates Cricket Board chairman, to not worry unduly about a potentially heavy winter international workload.

"We have a Test on October 18 and then we have the fifth ODI [one-day international, against Sri Lanka] on November 21," he said. "But we have a bigger workload in Ramadan tournaments."

Other nationalities are here, too. Dilhara Lokuhettige, who has played eight ODIs for Sri Lanka, is now on his fifth visit to the Emirates club scene.

"It's a very good opportunity to just play for us," he says, soon after he has, true to type, muscled a few big boundaries for Eurocon. "The standard of play has improved, especially this time when the scene has really kicked off."

This season Lokuhettige convinced another former international, Mahela Udawatte, to take part. Udawatte has played nine ODIs for Sri Lanka and was, until not too long ago, considered a top-order replacement for Sanath Jayasuriya, though with greater elegance. He wasted a start in the final, but he had a good run.

No time in the middle is wasted as he readies for a bigger assignment. He is set to take part in Ruhuna Rhinos's Champions League campaign later in September in India.

"Actually the league here is good and tournaments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are competitive ones with decent cricketers," he said. "It's been a very good experience especially as the Champions League is coming up. We have some experienced players in the Ruhuna side, like Sanath and Suraj Randiv, so we're hoping to do well over there this time."

The three leave soon, having won at least two club titles with Eurocon, to continue on their various paths.

It is not outlandish to think they will be back again, bit by bit adding to the story of the region's cricket.