Pakistan v South Africa 2013-14 October 18, 2013

Small crowd creates big atmosphere

More than 4000 people attended the Abu Dhabi Test on each day, adding much-needed colour in the sterile setting

Dancing, drum beats and die-hard fans are commonplace at most sports events, but I was warned to expect none of that in the desert. A society built on the need to make a tax-free income and stadiums situated far away from city centres or any other signs of life were listed among the reasons the players voices would be audible to journalists.

In reality, the media could hear very little. An insulated press box, five floors high and sealed behind glass windows, meant keeping an eye on the game was like observing something through a fish-tank. It was only when the crowd came in, that sound became part of the experience.

The Abu Dhabi Test was played over Eid but I can't be certain that was the only reason supporters turned up. When they did, they brought their full enthusiasm with them, playing music from the sidelines and providing the familiar claps and cheers that can serve as commentary for those moments when your eyes are on the computer screen.

Estimates suggest more than 4,000 people were in the ground on each day. Exact numbers can't be known because there was no ticket count since entry was free. At first, I was surprised to learn organisers were not planning on collecting any gate-takings, but soon discovered that's how most sporting events take place here.

The under-17 football World Cup started yesterday. Entry is free. The swimming World Cup is also happening. Entry is free. The Grand Prix will take place at the end of the month. But no, entry is not free. Mega-events, such as that one, attract people with money to spend - the remaining tickets available cost between US$510 and US$566 - and for the rest, there's just world-class facilities with no-one other than professional sports people to enjoy them.

Even at this time of year - autumn - the heat is searing. Combined with the humidity, being outside for prolonged periods of time is a challenge, not a comfort. The main grandstand at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium has a covered roof and it's under that where most people sit. The opposite stand is exposed to the sun. There was not a soul on it for the duration of the Test.

Grass embankments are increasingly rare in cricket grounds, so it was a welcome sight to see two at this venue. Surprisingly, they were popular despite the lack of shelter. A smattering of people would collect in a patch of shade, sometimes moving along with the shadows cast off advertising boards, and would grow in number every hour. By the third session, their dancing would have begun and many of them ended up in slow-motion montages on television highlights packages which made them look like whirling dervishes.

The energy they have, despite the absence of any refreshment sellers apart from two Pepsi stands, told a story about what watching cricket means to them. They should know it meant as much to the 'home' team.

Misbah-ul-Haq's eyes lit up when he was asked about the joys of playing in front of a crowd. He called it "wonderful," and asked people to attend the second Test as well. Next week is not filled with holidays, so the numbers Dubai Sports City will likely be lower.

Even if there is no one, the way the UAE hosts cricket, especially Test cricket, may be a lesson for countries who struggle to draw crowds. Perhaps there is some merit to opening the doors without charge and places like South Africa could consider it.

First-class games in the country have gone that route but it has not made much difference to audience sizes. Maybe the only way that will change is when fans realise how accessible cricket is in other part so the world, like the UAE, and to see how few people can take advantage of it.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yohan on October 19, 2013, 3:19 GMT

    It s only test cricket which you can watch ticket free . All ODI s & T20 s will cost AED 50 onwards . i watched a full day of test in Dubai ground when Sri Lanka played Pakistan in 2011 . Again another day in the next test in Sharjah . Enjoyed the both . You need regular water to avoid dehydration . Love watching cricket here . Awaiting Sri Lanka to visit here again in this December .

  • Garolian on October 18, 2013, 21:19 GMT

    Pakistan had better watch out. The playing pitches are not much to the liking of non-Pakistani teams. The searing heat is also a big deterrent for out door activities.The only reason they don't mind coming there is because the UAE is such a great place for a short holiday and the shopping is out of this world. It is moreover a safe place. Their wives and girls friends just go wild at the Gold Souks and High End Fashion stores.

    One of these days the fascination will wear off and then Pakistan will have to look for a different venue for their home matches.

  • Jawwad on October 18, 2013, 20:46 GMT

    Thank you Firdouse. You are turning out to best sports write on CricInfo right next to Osman, David Hopps and who is that guy form India in CUNY Ny?. Keep up the good work.

  • Ash on October 18, 2013, 19:00 GMT

    @ODI and uglyhunk, dear Mr. Srinivasan is trying his best to kill off Test Cricket; he doesn't need your help.

  • Amrutur on October 18, 2013, 17:57 GMT

    'Perhaps there is some merit to opening the doors without charge and places like South Africa could consider it'. Perhaps there is some merit to shutting the doors on test cricket, as even with free entry not many can spare a day.

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 16:57 GMT

    Funny Article from writer

  • shahid on October 18, 2013, 15:47 GMT

    @Ahmad.Pakistan, India couldn't score 450 as they were the chasing team and match would have won anyway when they reached the target set by Australia.

  • shahid on October 18, 2013, 15:43 GMT

    People in UAE don't come to watch test cricket. Those 4000 didn't come for cricket, they came to see who this famouse n beautiful lady called Firdose is.

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2013, 15:02 GMT

    I'm very pleased to see something of a crowd at Pakistan home test match. I find the low and practically non-existent crowds at some test venues very depressing, and I hope the day is moving closer to Pakistan finally hosting cricket again in its great cities.

  • Ahmed on October 18, 2013, 14:46 GMT

    Firdoos Moonda your work is simply impressive. I visit cricinfo every 10th minute of the day to check if there is some thing from you. Awesome simply awesome. There are so many writers on cricinfo whom we should admire but really I don't know when I got addicted to your articles. Your analytical articles give us hope when our favourite teams are down. My favourite teams are Pak and India. Why I love India is because of Dhoni and their formidable batting lineup. Couple of days back, had they been going with the same rate as second wicket partnership, they could have broken the world record of highest score in an ODI. With 9 sockets in hand and 2 centurians with bat in their hands, 450 was on.

    FM plz keep the fantastic work up.

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