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