x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Who said cricket isn't meant for everyone?

Low turnout in the Dubai Test does not reflect the deep-rooted following for the sport in the UAE.

Unfortunately for cricket followers, Pakistan’s 10-wicket win over England in Dubai ended before the weekend.
Unfortunately for cricket followers, Pakistan’s 10-wicket win over England in Dubai ended before the weekend.

It is weird how you get defensive about things. It just creeps up on you. And sometimes it happens with things you always thought you would remain equable and objective about.

The English media's deeply underwhelmed response to their surroundings for the opening Test of the series in Dubai last week provoked some odd feelings of protectiveness.

One of the most authoritative commentators on the game began his column in a leading UK newspaper thus: "Cricket was not meant for the desert."

Please excuse the impertinence, but says who? Should it just be reserved for neatly tendered green pitches among the hedgerows of leafy English villages, then?

Expatriates in the desert have long been resourceful when it comes to their sporting pursuits. Whether it be waiting for the tide to go out to play matches on the beach in the early days of Gulf rugby, or cricketers rolling the sand flat on the outfield to make fielding less hazardous, sports fans have long made the best of what they have in the desert.

Cricket is probably not meant for car parks, either, yet the game survives because of them here. No, it is not exactly Lord's, but those people who play tape-ball matches under lampposts and between parking bays every evening could not be without it.

The same goes for the patches of scrubland underneath the pylons at the back of Dubai's industrial estates, which are packed with labourers-come-Shahid Afridi-wannabes every Friday afternoon.

Further up the scale, international cricket is not without roots here. Sharjah may have played and missed at a few lately, but it is still plodding along, 201 not out. The ground that has staged more one-day internationals than any other is still in the desert.

The idea that Pakistan have home advantage in this series, beyond the fact that the soil for the pitches is borrowed from there, has also been described as "ridiculous".

It was unquestionably the case that, given the constraints of work hours and cost among the Pakistani expatriate workforce, they had little support at the ground for the first Test. But was last week's match the only time a new stadium has been empty for a Test match lately? Hardly.

There were probably twice as many people at this game than saw England secure their first Test win over Sri Lanka at Cardiff early last summer.

The format has been played out in front of dwindling crowds for years, in many cases – as here – due to poor scheduling.

The fact the game did not make it to Friday and Saturday, for which a number of tickets had been sold in advance and the crowd of walk-up Pakistani supporters would likely have been considerable, was a travesty.

So why did the game start on a Tuesday? There was always a chance it could be over within three days, and the financial hit of lost Friday revenue is one the Pakistan Cricket Board could probably have done without.

And perhaps the opposition are not much of a draw, anyway. If this had been Pakistan versus India, it would have been sold out many times over - for a limited-overs match, at least.

The nominal "home" team are certain to have a more sizeable backing when it comes to the shorter format matches at the end of this series.

Indeed, the most eagerly anticipated fixture of this series, the one which is as good as guaranteed to have packed stands pulsing with atmosphere, will not even involve England.

Afghanistan play Pakistan in a one-day international in Sharjah on Friday, February 10. Superficially, it is just a warm-up game ahead of the limited-overs series against England, but for one section of the community, it will be the hottest ticket in town.

Surely the most extraordinary moment in the short life of the Dubai International Cricket Stadium to date was that when around 12,000 Afghans arrived to see their team qualify for the 2010 World Twenty20 at the ground.

Their mass arrival was so unexpected, sections of the ground were closed off, and many of them were forced to scale the fences of the top tier of the ground to find a seat.

Cricket was not meant for war-torn Kabul, but it has still thrived there. Which just goes to show: cricket is for everyone.

Cricket was probably not meant for the badlands of Papua New Guinea, where many people live in extreme poverty and the petty crime rate is among the highest in the world. Yet the sport has already had one notable Cinderella story in recent years, namely the rise of the Afghan national team from the ruins of war. Maybe PNG – or the Hebou Barramundis, as they like to be known for marketing purposes – will be next.

The side from Oceania are one of the darlings of the International Cricket Council's development programme, having risen from unlikely beginnings to the point of being in with a shout of qualifying to play on the global stage.

They will be playing in the 16-team World Twenty20 qualifier here in March, ahead of the main competition in Sri Lanka later this year. They enjoyed a minor coup this week when the PNG-born Geraint Jones, an Ashes winner with England, asked if he could be considered for selection.

"I couldn't believe it when Geraint contacted us," said Greg Campbell, Cricket PNG's general manager. "He is genuinely excited about coming to play and helping us achieve the dream of a world cup spot."


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