x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

When it comes to cricket in the UAE, three really is a crowd

The UAE missed reaching the tournament they are hosting, the World Twenty20 qualification competition, but their inclusion would not have guaranteed crowds anyway.

Pakistan's Azhar Ali raises his bat after scoring a half-century against England in a match that, even though it was the final One-Day International of the series in the UAE,  was sparsely attended.
Pakistan's Azhar Ali raises his bat after scoring a half-century against England in a match that, even though it was the final One-Day International of the series in the UAE, was sparsely attended.

The World Twenty20 qualification competition will start in the UAE on Tuesday, shorn of the presence of the host nation, the side who are currently ranked equal first in the race for a place in the World Cup of the 50-over version.

Not that many will probably notice, much less care.

Support for the UAE national cricket team is shamefully pitiful.

Take last week for instance, when they extended their record in the one-day international qualifying process to five wins out of six matches.

The home contingent of supporters for the first of two matches against Scotland in the World Cricket League Championship in Sharjah last week amounted to precisely nil.

There were three people from Scotland's extended entourage in the stands, and nobody else.

Going by the wisdom that two is company, this only just managed to constitute a crowd.

Midway through the afternoon, Mohammed Iqbal, a big-hitting opening batsmen who is an occasional UAE player, arrived to support his mates.

They must have been overwhelmed by the show of solidarity. Did he not have somewhere better to be, like the rest of the population?

The invisible heroes of the cricket team are hardly the only national sporting representatives in this country who might feel under-appreciated.

It is the general rule of thumb across the mainstream sports here.

The UAE rugby team, for example, do well to attract as much a couple of hundred spectators to their matches.

Even football is hit and miss.

The fact 28,000 turned up to watch the UAE's Under 23 side play their vital Olympic qualifier against Australia last month could skew the perspective.

It was the exception to the rule.

Sometimes the national football team's matches are watched by merely three-figure crowds, let alone four or five.

And yet the football team at least has a captive audience, given that the sport is the preserve of Emiratis, the people who would logically feel the strongest affiliation to a national team.

The rugby team is mostly western expatriates. The cricket team is exclusively expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. As such, not even the players' families - who are generally back in their home countries - can come to watch.

The cricketers are by a distance the least loved. It is probably no surprise, given how few opted to come and watch some of the sport's most recognisable players when Pakistan played against England, the world's No 1 Test team, earlier this year.

Goodness knows what Aaqib Javed, the new UAE coach, really made of it. He used to play in front of teeming stands when he played for Pakistan at Sharjah. He will find that his new side are not quite the crowd pullers.

The irony lies in the fact that a tournament without the host nation - who failed to get this far after losing just a single match in the pre-qualifying event in Nepal - can still anticipate attracting a few people to watch over the next two weeks.

Afghanistan, cricket's Cinderella side, already rank among the best followed anywhere in the game. When they played Pakistan in a one-off, one-day international last month, their support comfortably outweighed that of their more established neighbours.

That was not a shock.

When this T20 qualifying tournament was first played, two years ago, the Dubai International Cricket Stadium filled up so quickly for Afghanistan's final against Ireland that health and safety officials would have been having a fit.

With a more modest turnout anticipated, the gates partitioning the top tier of the ground were locked shut.

So the Afghans scaled the fences in pursuit of a seat, apparently caring nothing for the 40ft drop to the tier below. It was one of the most arresting sights there has been in cricket for years.

The profile of the Afghan team has grown even more in the intervening time, and it will be safe to assume their faithful will be back in force for this tournament.

Their group match against Nepal at the weekend could conceivably attract more than some of those between Pakistan and England managed last month.

It is on a Friday, for a start, when the majority can actually get time off from work.

It is also being played at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, the most accessible of all the venues for the T20 qualifier.

The Afghan quotient is guaranteed, but it is also likely that Nepal will bring a few, too. The Nepalese national team are regularly watched by crowds of up to 15,000 when they play at home in Kathmandu.

There is a significant number of Nepalese expatriates in the Emirates, and cricket is passionately followed among the majority - due in part to the influence of Indian television in their home country.

Cricketers are used to playing in glorious solitude in this country, but it is probably more bearable for those not wearing the grey of the UAE national team.