Dubai’s cricketing love affair shows no signs of diminishing

With the Dubai Sports City ICC Academy set to host the Emirates Airline T20 for the first time, and on the back of the Pakistan Super League, Gruffudd Owen looks at Dubai's growing presence as a major host in the international cricket world

Less than a quarter of 2017 has passed and already Dubai is living up to its reputation as a city that eats, sleeps and breathes cricket.

January saw the emirate partly stage the eight-team international Desert T20 Challenge, including the semi finals and final, while earlier this month it once again stepped in to play a major part in the running of the second edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), with a number of matches taking place at the splendid Dubai International Cricket Stadium in Dubai Sports City.

And cricket fans in the city haven't had to wait long for their next fix, as the Emirates Airline T20 tournament heads to the nearby ICC Academy (ICCA) on Thursday, promising two days of world-class action involving some of the sport's most recognisable names.

Now in its eighth year, the competition has an expanded six-team format for 2017 featuring four top English T20 outfits, PSL champions Peshawar Zalmi and the Lahore Qalanders, also of the PSL.

With global stars including Jimmy Anderson, Shahid Afridi and Ian Bell expected to grace the pristine turf of the ICCA oval, it is yet another feather in the cap of this state-of-the-art facility, which is fast making a name for itself as one of the world's leading cricket destinations.

And ICCA general manager Will Kitchen has no doubt that his stamping ground will prove to be an ideal host for a thrilling competition that will be played at the venue for the first time this year, having previously been held at Dubai's Sevens Stadium.

“The reasons why the ICCA is the perfect home for the tournament are threefold, really,” he explains.

“Firstly, the location. We’re on bus routes connecting the Sheihk Zayed Road to the Mall of the Emirates, so people can travel here on public transport from the Marina, Jumeirah, Downtown and Bur Dubai very easily.

“Secondly, our playing venue. The ICCA hosts more international cricket and teams than any other venue globally – Oval 1 has actually hosted more T20 International games than the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia – so when it comes to both our playing and practice facilities, there really is nowhere better.

“The third reason is the relationships we enjoy with both the visiting teams and our local audience. Many of the teams playing in this year's Emirates Airline T20 have well-established links with the academy.

“What that means is that these guys truly feel that being here is like a home from home; they know they’ll be well looked after, which in turn means they’ll be relaxed, perform well and will go the extra mile when it comes to things like engaging with fans.”

In the long term, Dubai's standing in the wider cricket world will only grow with each top-level tournament it stages. Far from being satisfied with having a foothold in the professional game, however, it is also working hard to boost interest and participation on a local level, recognising this as key to maintaining the sport's popularity in the city in the years to come.

The ICCA is at the forefront of these efforts: hosting an extensive grassroots coaching programme, managing the UAE national teams and their performance pathways structures, and running comprehensive coach education courses at Levels 1, 2 and 3.

As it prepares to put on a cricketing feast at the Emirates Airline T20 and with local participation in rude health, it is clear the sport has an exciting future in the city – something that Will Kitchen is relishing being a part of.

“Dubai is becoming an ever more popular destination for cricket; I believe the high-quality venues and the quality of the experience for both travellers coming to the city and the local population are key to the growth of the sport here,” he reveals.

“Here at the academy, hopefully we can continue to develop the Emirates Airline T20 into an even bigger and better event, and we have one or two other exciting projects in the pipeline too. Watch this space!”

The Emirates Airline T20 tournament takes place between 23-24 March at the ICC Academy in Dubai Sports City