With the second edition of the tournament reaching a climax, Gruffudd Owen takes a look at how Dubai is helping pave the way for a return to international cricket in Pakistan through the Pakistan Super League
Pakistan, much like its eastern neighbour India, regards cricket as something of a national obsession.
In this diverse, vibrant country of over 200 million people, the sport’s immense popularity is enduring.
The national cricket team have been crowned champions of both the Cricket World Cup and the World Twenty20, while the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi – some of the most distinguished players to have donned the famous green shirt – are household names not just at home, but around the world.
All of which made the staging of the inaugural Pakistan Super League (PSL) in 2016, a Twenty20 tournament featuring five professional franchises, an eminently sensible decision.
With the game’s leading stars drafted in for a month of thrilling, fast-paced cricket, the competition was virtually guaranteed to be a hit domestically.
Television viewing figures would be in their millions, while a whole new generation of Pakistanis would be inspired to take up the sport, boosting the national team’s prospects in the long term.
There was one major problem, however: the location.
Security concerns denied Pakistan the opportunity to host matches, meaning an alternative site was needed if the tournament was to go ahead.
With its world-class amenities, excellent infrastructure and its relative proximity to Pakistan, Dubai was the obvious choice to assume the mantle. The Emirate certainly hasn’t disappointed either.
The state-of-the-art 30,000-seater Dubai International Cricket Stadium was the venue for the majority of matches during the 2016 season, including the final (nearby Sharjah staged the rest of the matches), and PSL organisers have been so impressed by the city’s hosting capabilities that the second edition of the competition is back again this year, with 13 matches taking place in the Emirate in total.
For Azhar Mahmood – one of the most recognisable Pakistani cricketers of his generation and the current bowling coach of the Karachi Kings PSL franchise – this decision was a no-brainer.
“We are playing cricket at home,” he says.
“Dubai is a 'home' for us. It has some of the best facilities in this part of the world. It's been brilliant so far.
“From a bowling point of view, I think bowlers will enjoy playing at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium because there is a bigger boundary for them in T20 competition. I think it’s a wonderful ground.”
Splendid though Dubai’s foremost cricket ground may be, this is not to say that it is the only world-class cricket attraction in the city.
The ICC Academy – located a stone’s throw away in Dubai Sports City – is fast emerging as one of the world’s top cricket centres, inviting several club and national sides to make use of its ultra-modern facilities every year.
Unsurprisingly, this offer has been taken up this season by a number of the PSL franchises – including Mahmood’s Karachi Kings.
“The ICC Academy is amazing,” he says.
“You can find all types of pitches at the nets here. The facilities are a lot more suitable for coaches and players compared to those at Sharjah.”
It’s not just the players who are benefitting either. With tickets generously priced between AED30 and 250, the tournament has been made affordable for all cricket fans based in the city, allowing them to catch a glimpse of genuine superstars including Brendon McCullum, Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen in action.
Ultimately, the PSL’s aim is to bring the competition back to Pakistan, and tentative steps have already been taken with the announcement that this year’s final will be held in Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.
However, there is no doubting the role that Dubai has played both in promoting this nascent competition worldwide and in helping restore the image of Pakistani cricket – a role it is well placed to resume for years to come.
The third PSL 2017 playoff takes place at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Friday 3 March