No boundary limits for Abu Dhabi Cricket as it's more than just cricket in the capital

Denzil Pinto 16:50 09/08/2018
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Judging from their name alone, it would be easy to believe cricket is the only sport on the agenda at Abu Dhabi Cricket.

But anyone who has visited the facilities surrounding the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in the last year or so would think otherwise. As their slogan ‘Every Day is Game Day’ suggests, it’s a lot more than just cricket that is being staged on their own doorstep.

Today, football, netball, basketball, squash, touch rugby and table tennis are just a handful of the sports played and that’s all down to the vision of Abu Dhabi Cricket.

It was back in March 2017 Abu Dhabi Cricket was reborn under the support of Abu Dhabi Sports Council. It meant the end of Abu Dhabi Cricket Club but the move provided an opportunity to enhance the facilities which were already in place.

That was the 20,000-capacity Sheikh Zayed Stadium which has hosted elite international cricket since 2006, two nursery ovals, the Zayed Cricket Academy and the dirt pitches used during domestic tournaments at the weekends.

But even though Abu Dhabi Cricket Club had done an excellent job, there was always room for expansion.

“One of the first challenges we faced was to improve the hardware,” said Matt Boucher, acting CEO of Abu Dhabi Cricket.

“We felt from Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s perspective that the hardware wasn’t as good as it should have been. The academy wasn’t in great shape, the Ovals could have been better and now we have focused a lot on those.

“The main stadium needed a significant touch-up and a lot of that is still to be done. The list is long. We have certainly focused on areas of hardware, equipment and real core facility areas that needed to be improved.”

Those improvements are there to see. The Sheikh Zayed Stadium’s capacity is now increased to 25,000 after the grass mounds at the East and West ends were transformed, the academy’s facilities including nets and practice fields have been revamped while the nursery ovals have had 500-lux LED Musco floodlights installed.

While that enhances the cricket infrastructure, it only counts as a small fraction of the work they have put in.

With a million-squared metre acre space at their disposal, the scope was there to open the doors to other sports and Abu Dhabi Cricket did exactly that.

For instance, the car park, when not in use outside the main stadium, is turned into netball courts for schools and the Abu Dhabi Netball League. That will only be temporary with four netball courts under construction.

Earlier this year in March, eight astroturf and floodlit football pitches were built, offering people in the capital an alternative venue to have a kick-about at an affordable price.

That is on top of two brand-new FIFA-approved grass pitches which were used as training hubs in last year’s FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi and again be a venue for the upcoming edition as well as the 2019 Asian Cup in January. In the coming months, there will be three FIFA-quality 11-a-side pitches with construction already under way.

Aerial shot of Abu Dhabi Cricket with their football pitches

Aerial shot of Abu Dhabi Cricket with their football pitches.

The massive facelift has certainly made a big impact and with their marketing team pushing the message through social media and word of mouth, news has quickly spread that Abu Dhabi Cricket is the place to visit.

From next month in September, there will be 25 companies on their books which they have partnered with. These include a number of UAE-based organisations as well as the Juventus Football Academy, who hold their youth coaching programmes at the ground.

On the cricketing front, their academy is now known as Zayed Cricket Academy in partnership with Gary Kirsten Cricket after joining hands with 2011 World Cup winning-coach Gary Kirsten’s academy in December.

The ex-India and South Africa supremo will be sharing his knowledge to the UAE’s stars of tomorrow across four coaching classes beginning from October as part of a two-year partnership with his Gary Kirsten Cricket institution.

The link up means the academy will now pick the brains of Oscar Nouhous, a member of Gary Kirsten Cricket’s coaching staff, after moving to Abu Dhabi permanently having been in the job for two months on a trial basis.

Even before the partnership, the aspiring cricketers have been enhancing their knowledge and skills with a brand new coaching team while Abu Dhabi Cricket have tapped into their contacts book to bring the game’s biggest stars to the UAE capital.

Pakistan’s former skipper Younis Khan, ex-Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jaywardene and England’s Jonny Bairstow are just some of the elite to have passed on their knowledge to the UAE’s stars of tomorrow in the last 12 months.

As Boucher puts it, Abu Dhabi Cricket wants to pride themselves as being an elite venue for international cricket, but also attract the community which is paramount to the legacy they want to create.

“The fact that we have gone from zero multi-sport to 25 partners in the space of 14 months is a real reflection of how important we see that community base,” he said.

“When we first started the project in June 2017 a lot of people didn’t know about Abu Dhabi Cricket facility. Now, we have a lot of new partners that are looking at the facility as a potential host. It’s absolutely priority for us to provide community based sports solutions to Abu Dhabi because for us it is as important as hosting world-class events.”

England's Jonny Bairstow at Abu Dhabi Cricket earlier this year

England’s Jonny Bairstow at Abu Dhabi Cricket earlier this year.

Cricket is still the number one sport they want to host. Their calendar until the end of the year is pretty hectic with Pakistan facing New Zealand and Australia as well as five fixtures of the Asia Cup in September.

While the UAE capital will be in the spotlight during those weeks especially on the international stage, Abu Dhabi are preparing for a milestone occasion of their own in October.

Chris Gayle, Albie Morkel and Yasir Shah will be among the biggest names in action for the inaugural Abu Dhabi T20 Trophy tournament from October 4 to 6. It is their most high profile tournament on their calendar and sends out a ‘statement of intent’.

The line-up is pretty impressive with franchises from different regions set to come together for a three-day bonanza at Sheikh Zayed Stadium.

Yorkshire Vikings of England, Afghanistan’s Boost Defenders, Big Bash League’s Hobart Hurricanes, Pakistan Super League’s Lahore Qalandars and South Africa’s most successful T20 outfit Multiply Titans have all been confirmed so far with a sixth side expected to be confirmed soon.

With Abu Dhabi Cricket organising everything, they do not want to leave a stone unturned in their bid of delivering a spectacle which they hope will increase their brand on the world stage.

“The Abu Dhabi T20 Trophy is a different concept,” added Boucher, who confirmed the matches will be broadcast globally. “We wanted to do something different and have a fantastic cricket festival.

“We have taken some inspiration from the FIFA Club World Cup where we had different sides from different continents taking part and we liked that. We like the world coming together from different cultures. We also want to tap into the neutral audience to attract the families to come and witness a great game of cricket.”

As for the future, while Abu Dhabi Cricket’s focus is to continue attracting new visitors to the state-of-the-art facility.

“Our target is to become a global capital for world sport, not the global capital,” said Boucher. “Hosting the Asia Cup and the reaching the continent and international audience will be great double headers. It sings perfectly into the hymn sheet of where we want to be and our ambition in growing to be a world capital for world sport.

“At the same time, we want to develop as a sporting hub which is affordable for people and that is paramount for us.”

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