x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The Pakistan-England series has been left with that empty feeling

Paul Radley asks why the crowds have generally stayed away and what organisers could have done better to fill the stands. Audio

The stadium in Dubai during the final ODI match between Pakistan and England.
The stadium in Dubai during the final ODI match between Pakistan and England.

The cheerleader podiums at Dubai International Cricket Stadium are peculiar contraptions. Given the fact this ground was built with the sport in the middle as the sole focus, there is commendably little space between the boundary edge and the stands.

Thus the people that do come to watch cricket here are as near as possible to the action. As such, the temporary platforms made for the dancers are set away to the sides, barely anywhere near the crowd. Which sort of defies the point of having cheer squads.

Not that it has been an issue so far in the limited overs series between Pakistan and England. The cheerleaders are only employed for Twenty20 internationals, so the two podiums have been uninhabited. Much like vast swathes of the stands.

Yesterday's meagre attendance for the final one-day international was the sorriest sight in a tour sadly full of them. Poorly attended international matches are not the sole preserve of cricket, but it certainly does a good line in them. And it never looks good.

This specific fixture was entirely pointless, rendered such when England clinched the series 3-0 last time out. What is the point of a four-match series, really?

Unless one match is lost to rain - in the UAE, as if! - a victor should have been decided by this point. Rather than being a keenly-awaited climax, this game had nothing riding on it at all.

That was not the only scheduling flaw. In a country where work has to come first for the vast majority of the population, why play on a Tuesday? It is not near enough to either end of the week to steal a day's annual leave and make it a long weekend.

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The players themselves must be attuned to playing in front of empty stands, with the odd occasion when a few do turn up being the exception rather than the rule.

"You always like to see full houses," Andrew Strauss, England's Test captain, said during the Test series in the UAE. "The more cricket you have here, the more people will come out and support."

Perhaps, but the matches still need to be managed right. This country is not alone in struggling attract significant numbers of people to cricket - it is a failing the sport needs to address.

Pietersen on his form

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However, the UAE could borrow a few pointers from the success stories elsewhere in this country when it comes to attracting big crowds to international sport.

The Dubai Rugby Sevens, historically the best attended event on the calendar, never fails to pull in paying spectators. At the end of last year, for example, more than 40,000 people attended both the Friday and Saturday of the three-day competition.

The target audience for it is largely, though nowhere near exclusively, English expatriates. Why do so many of them opt to go to the Sevens, but not follow their cricket team?

The venue itself makes a joke of the idea that people will not travel to see live sport here. There might well be a more remote arena for sport than The Sevens somewhere in the world, but one does not spring readily to mind.

Many feared the tournament would fail to survive its move from its old home at The Exiles - bulldozed in 2006 to make space for Healthcare City - to the new purpose-built premises on a camel farm in the desert, miles along the Al Ain Road.

Yet it continues to thrive - even though the abridged format of rugby is not universally regarded as a mainstream sport, either.

When it comes to major events, familiarity breeds success. Almost every western expatriate in Dubai - whether of a rugby mind or not - knows the Sevens always falls on the National Day weekend at the start of December.

There is evidence the UAE can do cricket, but only when - like the Sevens - the matches are an occasion rather than an irrelevance.

The meeting between India and Pakistan to officially launch the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi in 2006 could have sold out numerous times over.

Enticing India back to these shores would, at a stroke, solve the problem of empty stands, but that is an issue only politicians beyond cricket's spectrum can solve.

More recently, Sharjah's past two one-dayers have been watched by heaving, richly-hued crowds. One was its relaunch after years of major match exile, when Shahid Afridi single-handedly beat Sri Lanka there in November, and the other was Afghanistan's debut on the big stage earlier this month.

The Pakistan Cricket Board were extremely keen to stage some matches from this series in Sharjah, which is easily the most accessible of the country's three cricket stadiums. People through the turnstiles equals much needed funds for them, after all.

Yet England declined, on the grounds that the dates were agreed before necessary renovation work at the ground had been completed.

They were of the view "it would not have been fair to supporters to change pre-publicised venues at this late stage when many would have already made travel arrangements and booked accommodation".

Hindsight suggests for the sake of those few tourists, plenty more have missed out.

pradley@thenational.ae

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Follow The National Sport @SprtNationalUAE & Paul Radley @paulradley