#360business: Khaitan's proud association with UAE cricket

Ajit Vijaykumar 08:12 26/01/2016
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  • Ready to roll: Virender Sehwag (c) is the captain of the Gemini Arabians.

    The Masters Champions League is set for a grand launch in the UAE on Thursday and the anticipation is building with every passing day.

    Will it really offer something unique to the fans? How will people react to a Twenty20 tournament basically meant for retired players? Those questions will be answered only after the final ball is bowled on February 13. But for now, the focus is on the opening encounter of the six-team tournament between Libra Legends and Gemini Arabians.

    For Gemini team owner Nalin Khaitan, it is a milestone for the Khaitan group who have been associated with UAE cricket for a long time. Nalin’s father IP Khaitan first began the partnership with UAE cricket 23 years ago and the group hasn’t looked back since.

    “The Khaitan group first got associated with UAE cricket in 1993 when my father IP Khaitan sponsored the UAE national team all the way to 1997, during which period the country qualified for the World Cup,” Nalin, vice chairman of Khaitan Holdings, told Sport360.

    “Cricket has really grown in the UAE since. After sponsoring the national team, we were supporting a lot of Ramadan tournaments in Sharjah, the Bukhatir league and even at school level. Earlier cricket was played on cement pitches but now you have a vast growth in infrastructure.”

    The Khaitan group own Team Interface, which is one of the most competitive teams in UAE’s A Division. They spend in the region of Dh700,000 to one million to keep the team running and compete in tournaments round the year. According to Nalin, there is next to zero revenue generated from that endeavour but they still do it for the passion of the game.

    That love for the game reached its peak with the launch of the MCL and Nalin (right) said it was an opportunity he couldn’t miss.

    “We focus on cricket in the UAE. Be it tournaments in the UAE or sponsoring the national team. One of the main reasons we pursued MCL was the fact that it was being played here. My father is an old hand in UAE cricket so when something like this happened, we didn’t want to be left out,” he said.

    Such was the enthusiasm surrounding the MCL that it took Nalin just three days to say yes to be a part of the tournament, which is owned by Zafar Shah – chairman of GM Sports.

    “Like we have Team Interface, Zafar bhai has Grand Midwest Royals, another A Division team. We played a lot of games against them. My father and Zafar were part of this group of eminent businessmen called ‘Icons’. So before this cricket association, there was a personal relation with Zafar. I met Amin Farooq, honorary secretary of Dubai Cricket Council, when he was interacting with all domestic team owners to see how to develop Dubai cricket. During that meeting in September last year, the talks of MCL started. He called up Zafar, we met and it took us just three days to say yes.

    ” The next step was the players auction and Nalin tried to keep as much balance in the team as possible. I tried to cover all my bases. I have hard hitting openers, solid middle order batsmen and two brilliant spinners,” he said.

    The Arabians spent $736,000 out of their allotted $750,000 auction budget while assembling their 15-member squad. Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan is the costliest player in the team, having been snapped up for $120,000. Batting stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Virender Sehwag went for an undisclosed amount and would have commanded more than their $50,000 base price. Aussie veteran Brad Hodge ($80,000) and South African dasher Richard Levi ($80,000) both came in at a high price as they are active Twenty20 players.

    But while it’s all good to be enthusiastic about a new tournament, it is after all a business venture and owning a T20 team in a fairly saturated market is not for the faint hearted. Team owners know that the first few years will include a lot of expenditure without similar levels of revenue.

    Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 14.11.00“This is not a short term business. Even for teams in the IPL, they bled a bit before they started making money and it won’t be any different here. People involved in MCL have to take a long term view. It depends on how well the first year goes. If it’s a dud, then even in the fourth year we might not recover the money. The whole project hinges on how well the players do. If we have a couple of good games, we can turn things around by the second year,” he said.

    While the MCL can’t expect to match the Indian Premier League in size, with some players in the IPL earning in excess of $1.5 million and the highest paid cricketer in MCL being Jacques Kallis at $175,000, the aspiration to build a brand remains the same.

    “In IPL, the teams are valued at exorbitant numbers. Eventually we are looking to make Gemini Arabians into a property and build valuations. For that to happen, we will be focusing on player hospitality. That goodwill will go a long way in realising it,” Nalin revealed.

    “A player if he leaves happy, he will only want to come back. We have been focusing on every player separately. Let’s take Sehwag for example. The Indian Republic Day is on January 26 and he will be at the Indian High School for flag hoisting. So we have taken initiative with every player to ensure that the players and their families are comfortable.”

    While he knows that there are other T20 tournaments like IPL, Big Bash and even Cricket All Stars competing for fans’ attention, Nalin is confident the MCL can carve a niche for itself.

    “MCL is not competing with any of these leagues. It’s a platform for players to extend careers. A similar concept to ours is Cricket All Stars. But that is not a tournament. All Stars had three exhibition games and they have a different motive – to promote cricket in the US, which I feel is an excellent concept. For All Stars, carrying big names into the US was the key for people to get to know about cricket. But MCL is a very serious tournament.”

    The MCL isn’t the only sporting venture Khaitan Holdings is getting into. They are close to finishing a cricket ground in Ajman that will be built to the International Cricket Council’s standards in the hope of not only hosting top-class tournaments but that of the ICC as well.

    “It’s a joint venture between us, Mulk Holdings and IBSONS Group. All of us have put in Dh1mn each and the venue is almost ready. It will host various tournaments and we hope to recover the money within two to three years,” Khaitan explained.

    But for now, all eyes will be on the Gemini Arabians and the MCL with the hope that the T20 tournament will herald a new era of cricket in the UAE.