There’s a lot to be said for having a World Cup just after the domestic season has finished. Less than a month after the season finished in England, albeit the red ball game, and a few weeks after the IPL wrapped up, some of the good and and a very small number of the great of the 20 over game decamped to the desert in the United Arab Emirates for three weeks of enthralling encounters. In theory.
In the current COVID-19 world, this was never going to be a tournament for the fans. In many ways, it felt like a tick-box exercise to try to get some normality back to the sporting world. Having attended many international tournaments across a wide-range of sports in my travelling years, on arrival in the host countries it is hard to escape seeing adverts, billboards or local marketing efforts. Arriving in Abu Dhabi half-way through the tournament and the only sporting events being advertised were December’s Formula One Grand Prix and the World Triathlon Championships. Our first interaction with a taxi driver, taking us from the airport had him scratching his head at the thought of the tournament being played.
The tournament actually started a few weeks previously with the likes of the United States of America, Papua New Guinea, Oman, Namibia and the home nation fighting it out to reach the final qualifying rounds which surprisingly saw Namibia edging out Ireland and Netherlands to take one of the final four spots in the competition in the heat of Middle Eastern desert. But now it was the real deal with ten countries, playing across three of the Emirates.
There’s a wide assumption that Dubai is a country in its own right and whilst it has the biggest population in the United Arab Emirates (approximately 41% of the population live there), Abu Dhabi dwarves them all in terms of size with nearly 87% of the land. For those interested, Sharjah, the third Emirate hosting matches has a population of 2.4m and about 3% of the land and is located to the north of Dubai International Airport.
This was a spur of the moment trip. Needing to use up annual leave by the end of the year + wanting some sunshine and satisfying my desire to make an appearance at every major international sporting tournament going. Logistics wise it was a challenge but that’s right up my street.
Tickets were relatively cheap and most certainly plentiful in these post COVID-19 times, although for games featuring India and Pakistan, the local diaspora meant demand was high for their games. Perhaps the lack of publicity for the tournament was related to the travel restrictions and processes that fans had to go through to see a game in the flesh.
Costs to travel (and stay) in Abu Dhabi were significantly less than Dubai which shaped which games we were to see across a few days in the sunshine. Whilst the two emirates share a border, they are very different in terms of landscape and urban development. They also had very different rules for entry and moving around. For our four day, three game trip we had to:-
- Book and pay for private PCR tests in England taken within 48 hours of our outbound flight
- Book your Day 2 test for when you return to the UK
- Download an App and register with the UAE home affairs ministry
- Upload a QR Code the ministry sent once our application details to travel had been approved
- Be Verified To Fly by uploading said negative PCR test result and the QR Code giving us permission to travel to the UAE
- On landing at Abu Dhabi airport take a (free) PCR test before being allowed to leave the airport
- Travel direct to hotel – do not pass go or collect £200
- Check in and go direct to hotel room
- Receive PCR test results (approx 3 hours after taking it) and upload them to the App you downloaded even if it is a positive result
- Assuming it is a negative result you can then show the result in the app to gain entry into any bar, cafe, restaurant, shopping centre, tourist site or cricket ground
- If you are staying more than six days then you need to take a second PCR test (which you pay for) and upload that to the app.
- If you are staying less than six days then you need to take a PCR test to become Verified To Fly back which you upload back into the airline’s system along with the UK Passenger Locator Form, the reference number from your Day 2 test order and proof of your vaccination status
Alas the world of spontaneous travel has departed for the time-being and forgetting one (or more) of the above steps can really scupper any plans.
The cricket ground in Abu Dhabi is located at the centre of the Zayed City Sports Complex, about 8 miles from the heart of the city and the airport. It’s a green oasis in a desert – there’s two floodlight crickets grounds and a dozen or so 3G football pitches which seemed in constant use. But unless you have a car, or travel by taxi, it is unreachable.
Game 1 – South Africa 86-4 beat Bangladesh 84 all out
We didn’t arrive until the 4th over as our taxi driver assumed the cricket was being held at the football stadium, next to the Grand Mosque as opposed to somewhere 10 miles away. I didn’t expect there to be many in for the first game in the double header but perhaps not as few as were there. Good news though was there was no queue at the bar.
The majority of the crowd were in the South Stand, which dominates the ground with a roof that looks like a frisbee at an odd angle. At the North end of the ground there’s another decent sized stand but it sits in full sunshine, bar a small strip of seats next to the edge of the stand where most of the fans took refuge. On either side of the ground were grass banks which had been set up with small “pens”, white plastic picket fences that could accommodate four people. You literally stepped in and then sat on the grass.
Bangladesh had started cautiously but within two balls of our arrival they lost their first wicket with the score at 22. Then Rababa had Souyma trapped LBW next ball. He had to wait three more balls for this third wicket and Bangladesh were on the ropes. The pace of the South African attack ripped them apart – 22-0 became 45-6 in just eight overs. The only resistance came from Mahedi Hasan who played a T20 innings, scoring 27 off 25 balls before he fell with ten balls to go, behind followed the next ball by Nasum who inexplicably hit his own wicket.
South Africa were never going to struggle to score 85 but they made heavy weather of it, taking 13 and a half overs to reach an easy target. They lost Hendricks in the first over and Markram for a duck in the sixth over but made it home with ease.
As the game had progressed, Pakistan’s fans had been arriving and started to make themselves heard. The stewards in the ground spent their time pacing up and down the stands, looking to chastise any misbehaviour such as taking pictures (cameras of any size were banned) or waving flags. As if fans could support their teams!
Game 2 – Pakistan 189-2 beat Namibia 144-5
The Pakistani team arrived around 4pm and sat under a marquee watching the earlier game. It was a bit disconcerting to see someone in full a full hazmat suit spraying down the area around where they were sitting but these are extraordinary times and I am sure it was all for the greater good.
As the sun set around 5:45pm the crowd swelled with Pakistan fans who built an atmosphere. Their 10 wicket win against India had been the result of the tournament so far but perhaps more of the surprise had been their 100% record so far, and a win here would see them become the first side to qualify for the semi-finals. Two Emirates stewardesses strode purposefully onto the pitch carrying a tiny trophy, that even on a close-up on the big screens looked pocket sized.
Namibia had shown some promise in their first ever international tournament playing alongside the top teams in the world and having been asked to bowl in this game showed they have some talent in opening bowler Ruben Trumplemann, who took three wickets in his opening over against Scotland and here conceded just two runs from his opening two overs.
Alas, once he was taken out of the attack, the Pakistan openers, wicketkeeper Mohammed Rizwan and captain Babar Azam set about the rest of the Namibian bowlers as both scored half-centuries within forty balls each, putting on an opening stand of 113 in just over 14 overs. The dropping temperature was a welcome relief for all but it did lead to condensation forming on the pitch which saw a couple of calamitous slips by the Namibians as they tried to restrict Pakistan to a score under 150. Alas, some controlled, powerful batting saw them hit 189 for the loss of just two wickets much to the delight of the hundreds of Pakistan fans.
It was always going to be a tough ask for the Namibians, not only facing one of the fastest attacks in world cricket on a pitch that had become totally unpredictable and with a hostile crowd but they did well. I don’t mean that in a patronising way but in a surprising way – decent knocks by the opener Baard, Williams and the 43 not out David Wiese saw them reach 144-5 in their twenty overs, a score that in many games batting second would have seen them win.
Games over, we now had to locate our Uber driver who appeared to be driving round and round the car park. At one point it appeared as if he had run us over but then we twigged that he wasn’t in his car but carrying his phone around looking for us. We stayed still and he eventually located us I doubt he will be improving my average Uber score off the back of this.
Game 3 – Sri Lanka 189-3 beat west indies 169-8
And so, our final night in Abu Dhabi and the best game of the lot. Having seen what the “Party Four” tickets really were on Tuesday (the picket-fenced spots on the grass) I’d upgraded our seats to the North Stand. Once again ticket sales had been poor and so on arrival they reallocated everyone back into the South Stand. There was a very lively contingent of Sri Lankans here to watch their team and test the stewards, who not had one guy whose job it seemed to enforce a) people wearing shoes, b) stopping one particular fan waving a Pakistan flag (it was a magnificent flag, made of green and white sequins with blue pompoms) and c) to frown on anyone who was drinking beer. But the fun police couldn’t stop a fantastic game of cricket.
An impressive Sri Lankan batting performance saw all of their batters score at a strike rate of over 100, with Asalanka and Nissanka having the key partnership of nearly 100 in ten overs, both scoring half centuries, although they were aided by some shoddy fielding by the West Indies and so wayward bowling, none more so than by the vastly experienced Dwayne Bravo who went for 42 in his four overs including one that had 3 wides.
Both teams had been effectively eliminated already but it didn’t stop this being an enthralling contest. West Indies needed nearly 10 an over and were two wickets down within 12 balls. Nicholas Pooran offered up some resistance, scoring 46 before he was brilliantly caught at wide mid-wicket but the star of the show, in fact the game, was Shimron Hetmyer who hit an unbeaten 81 off just 54 balls and could have steered them home if someone, anyone would have been able to stick around long enough. As it was, they finished 21 runs shy of victory.
So there we have it. Three games, four days in temperatures that simply weren’t cricket. I’m not sure that any objective of increasing the interest in the game in the UAE will work on the back of this tournament. There wasn’t many neutral local fans – the support came from expats or migrant workers by the looks of the games we saw. It perhaps was a bizarre choice for the tournament in normal circumstances but faced with logistical and operational issues of holding it elsewhere, there should be some credit given that there was a tournament at all in 2021. And with that final run scored by Hetmyer off the 120th ball of the West Indies innings, so ends my cricketing adventure of 2021. Roll on 2022 and England’s visit to the West Indies