Sun is starting to set on the UAE's status as the second home of Pakistan cricket

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For the best part of a decade, the UAE has been a home away from home for Pakistan cricket. It is an association born out of compulsion more than anything, but it is one which has served both parties well over its course.

After the 2009 terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore brought international cricket to a standstill in the country, the UAE has been the most natural fit for Pakistan’s ‘home’ base with its close proximity, substantial expat population and excellent cricketing infrastructure.

On Pakistan’s part, it has perhaps been a reluctant association despite the compulsions that have drawn them to the UAE. Not having international cricket on your own soil is never an attractive proposition, especially considering the passion and support for cricket back in Pakistan has rarely been matched in the stands in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

The costs of hosting international teams in a foreign land are always considerable as well, while the fact that their own population has been deprived of high-quality cricket for nearly 10 years is not pleasant either.

Yet, there have also been several high points of the partnership, including the rise of the Pakistan Test team to the No1 ICC ranking in 2016. It was the first time since 1988 Pakistan had accomplished that feat, and it came on the back of a long unbeaten Test run in the UAE. In fact, their first Test series defeat on UAE soil came only after seven years in October, 2017 when Sri Lanka emerged 2-0 victors over Sarfraz Ahmed and his men.

Misbah's Pakistan rose to No1 on the back of an unbeaten run in the UAE.

Misbah’s Pakistan rose to No1 on the back of an unbeaten run in the UAE.

Apart from staging Pakistan’s international home matches, the UAE has also simultaneously played host to the Pakistan Super League (PSL) which came into existence in 2016. This long standing association between the two countries, however, is now on its last legs with cricketing normalcy being gradually, but surely, restored in Pakistan.

For the first time in the tournament’s history, the PSL 2020 will be held in Pakistan in its entirety. Meanwhile, Test cricket’s return to Pakistan after more than a decade was marked in December last year with Sri Lanka being the first visitors. Coupled with the recent news of Bangladesh agreeing to tour Pakistan for a full Test series, albeit in phases, the UAE’s status as the alternate home base is fast diminishing.

It will be a bittersweet feeling for many expat Pakistan fans like Fahad Parvez who have passionately supported the team in the UAE. While the stands might not exactly have been packed to the rafters, the support from fans like Fahad has been unwavering.

“Prior to moving to the UAE, I used to go to the National Stadium in Karachi to watch every international match being played there,” Fahad recalls.

“The unfortunate attack in 2009 on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore left me devastated both as a fan of the sport as well as a supporter of Pakistan cricket. Watching the men in green play their home games on foreign soil was a bitter pill to swallow, only until I moved to the UAE myself.

“After that, I considered myself the most fortunate man on the planet to be in the country where Pakistan would play host to some teams every few months. Needless to say, there was hardly a home match Pakistan played in Dubai that didn’t have me as a spectator sitting in the stands cheering my team on, even if it meant heading straight to the stadium after a long and tiring day in the office.”

In his years of watching Pakistan cricket in the UAE, the marketing professional has witnessed several epic moments which he will cherish for the rest of his life.

“From whitewashing England 3-0 in a Test series in 2012 to thrashing Australia 2-0 in Tests in 2014, there is a lot I can recall. In 2014, I witnessed an epic chase by Pakistan when they scored 300 odd runs in nearly two and a half sessions on the fifth day of a Test match against Sri Lanka in Sharjah to win an absolute thriller,” he says.

“Also, witnessing the inaugural ceremony of the PSL in Dubai was an emotional moment for me as a Pakistani. That day marked the beginning of a new chapter in Pakistan cricket and eventually led to emergence of some exciting young talent.”

The PSL 4 opener in Dubai. Image @thePSLT20/Twitter.

The PSL 4 opener in Dubai. Image @thePSLT20/Twitter.

While Pakistan supporters in the UAE like Fahad have definitely got their money’s worth, it has also been a chance for the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) to showcase the various cricketing facilities mushrooming across the country.

“Pakistan moved to the UAE because of the safety concerns, the political situation and also the ICC rules and regulations which affected them,” ECB board member Zayad Abbas told Sport360.

“The UAE was a preferred venue for them location wise, facilities wise and safety wise. And of course, also due to our strong relationship. All of these played a positive role in attracting them to the UAE.”

Under new management, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is now adopting a firm stance on hosting all future matches on Pakistan soil. However, there will always be a place for them to call home in the UAE should the need ever arise. With India refusing to travel to Pakistan for the 2020 Asia Cup, there is still a big chance that the tournament could be held in the UAE for the second edition in a row.

“It all depends on their decision but Pakistan is always welcome to play in the UAE,” said Abbas.

“Of course, we would love to host more Pakistan matches in the UAE since it gives us a boost as well. It boosts our attendances, our utilisation of the stadiums and so many other important factors.”

The one major criticism of Pakistan cricket’s history in the UAE has been the sparse attendances despite the presence of several Pakistani expats in the country. While Pakistan’s international matches, especially the limited-overs clashes, have generally seen healthy attendances, the same has not been the case in the four recent editions of the PSL.

“It depends on the quality of cricket and the players being showcased first of all. It also depends on the season, the weather and the pricing of tickets,” explained Abbas.

“Then there is also how you market the matches. There are so many factors which affect the attendances in stadiums. Most of these things were directly being handled by the Pakistan Cricket Board and the PSL themselves.

“We provide them with the facilities based on certain agreements and conditions. The rest is totally managed by them.”

PAK

Fahad, meanwhile, has his own take on the reasons behind the low attendances in the UAE.

“I think timing played a crucial role, with weekday games struggling to attract audiences as everyone was busy working,” he says.

“Unlike Pakistan, where taking the day off or shortening your work day to head to the stadium is easier, the UAE is a place where most Pakistani expats find it very difficult to do so. Many people sacrificed watching their team play, in the line of duty. Matches held on weekends, however, saw bigger crowds.

“One more thing that led to vacant seats in certain games was the venue selection. Most Pakistanis living in the UAE are based in Ajman, Sharjah or some areas of old Dubai like Deira and Bur Dubai. The commute from such localities to the stadiums in Dubai and Abu Dhabi isn’t that convenient.

“As Sharjah Cricket Stadium is a stone’s throw from where most Pakistanis live, it has always yielded a better turnout than matches held elsewhere in the UAE.”

The low attendances notwithstanding, Pakistan cricket being staged in the UAE has no doubt aided in the development of the sport in the Gulf country. With the infrastructure expanding rapidly over the last 10 years, many other tournament organisers and boards have opted to use the UAE as their base. Parts of the Indian Premier League (IPL) were held in the UAE in 2015 after general elections in India forced the organisers to look for an alternative venue. In recent years, the T10 League has set up base in the UAE along with the Afghanistan Premier League (APL).

Cricket is definitely experiencing a boom in the region and the show will most definitely continue to go on, with or without Pakistan cricket. For cricket fans such as Fahad, it will mean that the opportunities to watch for the Men in Green from up close will drastically reduce in the future. The Pakistan man, though, is most certainly not complaining.

“The security situation has improved significantly in the country since 2009. There’s no excuse really for foreign teams to avoid touring Pakistan now that the country has successfully hosted many international players for PSL games, the World XI and recently, the Sri Lankans,” he states.

“The cricketing world must support the PCB in its efforts to help Pakistan cricket return to where it rightfully belongs. The revival of international cricket in Pakistan was long overdue and it’s good to see things moving in the right direction.

“Not only would it bring a smile on the faces of citizens of the country, it would also help improve the rate at which new talent is produced, with young spectators watching someone like Babar Azam play for example, and wanting to be like him one day. As for me, taking a flight back home every now and again to witness the lads in action is something I can easily manage. So I’m not overly bothered about not getting to see them in the UAE anymore.”

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