UAE’s new T20 cricket league arrives with star names and riches on offer
After months of delays, the UAE’s new cricket tournament – the International League T20 (ILT20) – will finally begin in Dubai on Friday.
What promises to be a dazzling opening ceremony will be followed by the first game, as the Dubai Capitals take on the Abu Dhabi Knight Riders in the explosive shortened format of the traditionally slow-paced game.
Six teams will compete in the month-long tournament, which organisers hope will stand out amid an increasingly crowded global T20 calendar. As well as in Dubai, matches will take place in the other emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
International players from England, Australia, the West Indies and other leading nations have been signed up, with more than 100 overseas players taking part alongside 24 from the United Arab Emirates.
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While there are four local players in each squad, teams are allowed to field as many as nine overseas players in their starting XI, compared with the usual four foreigners per side seen in established T20 franchise leagues.
A number of the international stars have agreed deals worth $450,000 per season to play in the tournament, with the salary cap the second highest after the powerhouse Indian Premier League (IPL).
Causing a stir
Matt Roller, a cricket writer for ESPNcricinfo, said: “There's been quite a lot of controversy around the possibility of having nine overseas players in a team.
“It's been a discussion point at ICC [International Cricket Council] meetings, where it was signed off quite early on, almost before people had woken up to what it might potentially do for the wider cricketing ecosystem. And there's been a bit of pushback against it.”
He adds that the high salary cap for the ILT20 “is going to make people sit up”.
The league is sanctioned – but not owned – by the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), and is being run by ECB vice-chairman Khalid al-Zarooni and general secretary Mubashshir Usmani.
Speaking to Middle East Eye, Usmani defended the number of overseas players involved, stressing that so called "Associate Nations" in the ICC such as the UAE have every right to establish their own rules.
“The number of overseas players in a league is arbitrary,” he said. “You will hear differing views on what is the right number of overseas players in a league. Some would say that the current practice in other leagues of four overseas players in a playing XI is at the cost of opportunity of four local talented players.
“We think that as an upcoming league a guaranteed position for four UAE players in the official squad and two UAE players in the playing XI as a start is just the right number in ILT20. We also believe that like [ICC] Full Members, the Associates should have freedom to self-manage and create their domestic tournaments.”
'Log jam' in the calendar
The ILT20 overlaps with three other T20 franchise competitions: Australia’s Big Bash League, the Bangladesh Premier League and South Africa’s new SA20, which began earlier this week.
“While it is true that this window is packed with a lot of T20 franchise as well as all-format bilateral cricket, we are very confident of creating our own impression both for fans at the three tournament venues as well as those who will watch the tournament around the world," said Usmani.
“We have the biggest talent pool of players and that sets us apart compared to any other league. With so many stars on the field representing each of the six sides, the tournament will provide some world-class cricket action for all to watch and enjoy.”
Tim Wigmore, a sports writer for The Daily Telegraph, and author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution and Crickonomics: The Anatomy of Modern Cricket, says having four tournaments running concurrently in January is creating a “log jam” in the calendar and greater competition for players, but notes that some have left other tournaments early to compete in the ILT20.
Among them is Australian batter Chris Lynn, one of the stars of the Big Bash, who agreed a deal with Adelaide Strikers to play 11 out of 14 group games before flying to the UAE, missing the climax of the T20 tournament down under.
“It would have been absolutely unthinkable through any of cricket history that an Australian would prioritise the UAE over playing in Australia,” says Wigmore. “And that just shows that [the ILT20] is a serious prospect.”
Roller said that aside from the money, players are being attracted by some of the comforts and familiarity of playing in the UAE.
“Many of the guys involved have played a lot of cricket in the UAE and they seem to enjoy staying there,” he said.
“They get put up in nice hotels, they can play golf in their free time, they can go to the beach, they can have their families out there. It’s quite a comfortable lifestyle for pro sportsmen.
"Having spoken to one or two players about it, they have been sold the idea that this is a pretty serious league that's going to be here for the long run,” he added.
Previous Emirati T20 tournaments either failed to launch or folded soon after being established, but the ILT20 has tried to insure against doing the same: Each team has agreed a ten-year licence and the Indian network Zee TV has struck a ten-year deal reportedly worth US$120 million to broadcast the games globally, including in India, Pakistan, the UK and Australia.
Dubai-based logistics group DP World has agreed a five-year title sponsorship deal, too.
Three of the teams, Abu Dhabi Knight Riders, Dubai Capitals and MI Emirates, have been acquired by owners of IPL franchises, with all the others backed by major sports and finance investors, including Manchester United co-owner Avram Glazer’s Lancer Capital, which has bought the Desert Vipers.
But several question marks linger above the competition. While the UAE has played host to a number of international cricket tournaments, including the 2021 Men’s T20 World Cup, low attendances are a concern. Crowds in UAE-based games are rarely high unless teams from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka - or players from those countries - are on show.
Jarrod Kimber, an Australian cricket writer and film-maker who watches cricket regularly in the UAE, says that with just one player in the tournament from India - 37-year-old Robin Uthappa - and none from Pakistan or Bangladesh, nationals from those countries living in UAE are unlikely to attend in large numbers.
“If in the first season they can get ten crowds of over 5,000 I think they're doing really well,” he said.
Kimber observes that going to the cricket is not part of the country's sports culture.
“Cricket in the UAE has this almost haunted feel to it, where it exists, but it's almost like they're all ghost games and they just don't matter,” he said.
'Cricket in the UAE has this almost haunted feel to it, where it exists, but it's almost like they're all ghost games and they just don't matter'
- Jarrod Kimber, writer
From a TV perspective, Kimber notes that the UAE’s time zone is favourable, being just one-and-a-half hours behind India. The interest of some fans there may be piqued by the presence of teams owned by IPL franchises.
However, he points out that the lack of Indian players - most of whom are not permitted to play in any T20 franchise tournament apart from the IPL - makes it difficult to attract a major TV audience in what is far and away cricket’s biggest market.
“Before 1983 [when India won their first World Cup], Indians absolutely loved cricket, but from 1983 onwards there's just been a movement - more and more that Indians love Indian cricket,” he explained. “And so they're not as interested in the global game.”
Nevertheless, Usmani asserts that the tournament can attract large crowds and strong global TV audiences.
“UAE is host to a big number of expatriates who have cricket as their favourite sport,” he said. “The region has a rich history of successfully hosting some of the biggest T20 tournaments.
“We have a star-studded opening ceremony line-up with performers like superstars [Indian rapper] Badshah and [RnB singer] Jason Derulo and that should set the ball rolling for a richly entertaining month of cricket. All these elements in a competition make it attractive for good attendance.”
UAE cricket development
A further question is to what extent the tournament can benefit UAE cricket. The country has ambitions to become a Full Member of the ICC (which is based in Dubai), which would bring significantly more funding and a place on the ICC’s board.
Paul Radley - a sports writer for Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National who has covered cricket in the UAE for the past 15 years - thinks the ILT20 can help accelerate the development of the game in the country.
'Who knows, in the future you might see a UAE player in another franchise league, which would be a huge moment for cricket here in the UAE'
- Phil Oliver, CEO of the Desert Vipers
“I think it could be brilliant for cricket here because locally-based UAE players are going to be exposed to playing alongside players like Kieron Pollard, and all the other great players in the tournament, that have had so much experience of top level international cricket.”
He believes more slots should be available to UAE cricketers in each team, though, to help them progress.
“I personally feel, watching domestic cricket over here and seeing the national team play, that there's so much talent, and there should definitely be more than two places guaranteed in each starting XI for locally based players, and that would speed up the player development.”
Usmani agreed that “the UAE players will get the opportunity to play alongside and compete against the best players in the game, and this will aid in their professional development.”
But he also stressed that the benefits the ILT20 can bring to cricket in the UAE go beyond the tournament itself.
“The DP World ILT20, as a first step, has agreed to fund the first year central contracts for the UAE women’s team and also pick up the cost of a full-time women development officer.”
The ECB chief also revealed that “the franchises are in the process of formalising development programs to be run annually, which will have a significant impact on UAE cricket and will assist the ECB in managing funds that would otherwise have to be spent.”
“There are very clear goals that, by the sanctioning, the ECB wants fulfilled and we are committed to fulfilling these.”
Phil Oliver, CEO of the Desert Vipers, told MEE that as well as having opportunities to play alongside some of the world’s elite players, the UAE cricketers in the ILT20 will be playing “within top rate coaching structures.
“I think you might well see more than two UAE players in some of the teams throughout the event, and I think you'll see at least a couple of breakthrough performances from UAE players which will put them on the map,” he said.
“And who knows, in the future you might see a UAE player in another franchise league, which would be a huge moment for cricket here in the UAE.”
The ILT20 also begins amid ongoing concerns about corruption in UAE cricket.
Last week, a UK media report claimed the ICC was investigating a series of corruption allegations at the Abu Dhabi T10 competition, which took place in December.
The allegations centre on an unusual level of betting activity, with the report claiming that in the regulated markets up to £800,000 was wagered on individual matches which attracted only a few hundred paying spectators.
The report also said that some of the England internationals who took part have not been paid.
In response, the organisers of the tournament denied any knowledge of the corruption probe.
Usmani said the ILT20 will take place under strict anti-corruption controls.
“We have got an incredibly tight and robust anti-corruption system in place overseen by ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit - each team will have an integrity officer attached. These measures are being put in place to protect the event against corruption.”
In total, 34 matches will be played during the tournament, in a double round-robin format, followed by playoffs involving the top four teams, before the final on 12 February.
Ben Marlow, managing director of Asia Pacific at 21st Group, which provides data consultancy to clients in cricket and other sports, said that while the format of the tournament offers “quite good value for a broadcaster in terms of the content hours you're getting... [it] might be a bit long and might be a bit tiresome by the end".
He also noted that “cricket pitches in the UAE historically have been quite slow, which doesn't tend to lend itself to high-octane T20 cricket.
"A lot will depend on how it captures the public imagination."
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