Inside the ICC Cricket Academy: a jewel at the heart of Dubai Sports City

The ICC Cricket Academy in Dubai is a world-leading destination for the sport, with several first-class cricket nations opting to use its modern facilities all year round. Gruffudd Owen takes a behind-the-scenes look at the work being done there, and the efforts made to develop the game in the UAE

Located to the south of the coastal neighbourhood of Jumeirah, Dubai Sports City has emerged as one of the emirate’s foremost landmarks since the multi-venue, multi-sport and multi-million dollar site first opened its doors in 2008.

The 50 million square feet of land – entirely dedicated to sporting pursuits – is home to several complexes including the 18-hole Els Club golf course, designed and named after former world no. 1 Ernie Els, and the Spanish Soccer Schools, run by former Real Madrid defender Michel Salgado.

This enthusiasm among some of sport’s leading names to invest in Dubai Sports City is testament to the community’s rapid rise in prestige since its inception just nine years ago.

And to understand exactly why it is such an attractive destination for the very best in sport, one need only take a look at the work being done at the ICCA (International Cricket Council Academy).

Opened in 2010, this ultra-modern, state-of-the-art academy reflects Dubai’s growing importance as a venue for elite cricket, with the ICC having also decided to move its head offices to the city in 2005.

Welcoming a modest three high-profile teams during the academy’s first year of business, it has very quickly become the go-to training camp in world cricket, particularly for sides wishing to practise in sunny climates during the winter months. No fewer than 42 sides made the most of its enviable facilities last year, while 36 have already been confirmed for 2017.

Walking around, one cannot help but be impressed by the standard of the resources on offer: everything a cricketer could possibly need to refine his or her game can be found here. The ICCA prides itself on this bespoke, cricket-oriented service, as Will Kitchen – general manager of the academy – is keen to point out.

“Everything here is about specificity,” he reveals.

“For example, the gymnasium looks the way it looks because it’s specifically tailored for a cricketer, and what a cricket player needs. 

“There are some bits and pieces you might not find here that you might find elsewhere, or vice versa.

“Cricketers don’t run 10 kilometres at a time, so we don’t have stuff that caters for long-distance training. They run 20 metres. Everything’s done with that in mind, rather than it just being a general training facility.”  

Naturally, this meticulous approach also extends outdoors: as well as two floodlit full-size ovals accredited for both one-day and T20 variations of the sport, there is a practice area that includes 38 natural grass turf pitches designed to replicate various playing conditions (17 Australian, 17 Pakistani and four English) and a floodlit cricket cage area containing six retractable cricket lanes.

It is easy to see why the top teams – especially English county cricket sides – are so drawn towards the academy for their pre-season preparations.

“Previously, everyone used to go to South Africa,” Kitchen elaborates.

“But the UAE is a little bit closer, and because of the quality of the venues and the fact that there’s always other teams around – a lot of the county teams in pre-season get exposed to the likes of Afghanistan – this gives them a better quality of preparation comparative to going to Cape Town and playing a club side there.”

“When the professionals come in from the UK for pre-season – so during the months of February and March – they’ll prepare on the English pitch we have here.

“By the time they head home, they’ve had some time outdoors on English wickets rather than playing in Australia, where the conditions are different.”  

Although the two ovals close for three months each during the summer months to give the grass some much-needed respite, running the premises remains a demanding year-round operation.

The academy hosts an indoor cricket league when the outdoor pitches are unavailable, while it is also constantly bringing in dirty water from office blocks and refrigeration companies to treat and recycle at its desalination plants, which is then used to feed the grass pitches: an expensive task that requires much planning and cooperation.

“In one sense it’s growing grass, so once you’ve got the right type it’s relatively easy,” Kitchen reveals.

“Maintaining it all is the difficult bit. Actually keeping the grass growing is challenging, because we host so much cricket.

“A Test venue like Lord’s hosts about 40 days of cricket a year. We do about 280 here.”

Hard work no doubt, but the efforts made to provide exceptional cricketing facilities are clearly paying dividends.

What’s more, the benefits are being felt at a local as well as an elite level: a number of the academy’s development schemes – from the Cricket Cubs for four to six-year-olds to the 18+ Senior Warriors programme – are designed to boost the game’s appeal in the UAE and improve the quality of cricket in the country.   

And with the latter stages of the eight-team Desert T20 tournament also set to take place in the nearby Dubai International Cricket Stadium later this month, it is clear that the sport has found an ideal home at Dubai Sports City.

The 2017 Desert T20 takes place between 14-20 January, with matches to be played at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium between 18-20 January