October 21, 2013

Why Pakistan feel at home in the UAE

Familiar food, partisan crowds, docile pitches - it's as if they are on their own turf

Much is made of Pakistan having to play their home games in the UAE, but as the recent success against South Africa goes to show, the team is far from handicapped by playing in these supposedly neutral venues. In fact, the players enjoy every advantage they would have had they been playing in Pakistan proper, and more besides. Let's take a look at a few:

Painting the town red
Not for Pakistan the hotel-bound tedium of a set daily routine that is the fate of many an away team. No, these dynamic young men like to take advantage of being on their home turf as only locals can. As such, the Pakistan team can often be seen, as they have for years in these parts, shuffling aimlessly from mall to mall in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, doing things the South African players languishing back at their hotels (or in the hottest nightclub in town) can only dream of, such as checking out miniature replicas of the Burj-al-Arab at that one stall there outside the Abercrombie & Fitch on the fifth floor. "So good to be home," said Misbah-ul-Haq in a small voice.

While these days the five-star hotels cricketers stay in can do a reasonable enough job of approximating a particular type of cuisine as required by away teams, nothing beats going down to one's favourite local haunt to eat the food you grew up eating. Just ask Saeed Ajmal.

"It's uncanny," says the spinner, "the food at the McDonald's here tastes exactly like the food at the McDonald's in Faisalabad. It's like I never left home."

Stadium atmosphere
Research has shown that home teams have higher success rates when playing in their own stadiums partly because they feed off the energy of their fans. The crowds in the UAE may be painfully small at times, but it is precisely because of that reason that the words uttered by the few people watching the game carry as clear as day all the way out to the middle.

"While back in Pakistan if you drop a catch all you hear is an undifferentiated roar, here you get to hear, as clear as if he were standing next to you, a crane operator from Multan letting you know what he thinks your relationship is with your own sister," said one Pakistani player, a wicketkeeper, who wished not to be named. "It really motivates you to do your best," he added earnestly.

Proximity to friends and family
The psychological advantage of one's proximity to friends and family can never be discounted on a long tour. Home teams have the luxury of visiting, and in some cases even staying with, their families during the course of a series, and it is no different with the Pakistan players. All they have to do to see their loved ones is change their UAE visas from single entry to multiple entry, wait around while their applications are processed, and if a seat is still available by then, jet the thousand kilometres or so and back before practice the next morning. All in a day's work.

Ticketing policy
As is sometimes the case during home games, the host association will sell only a limited number of tickets to travelling fans of the away team. Indeed, out of a total of 19 tickets sold at the Sharjah Cricket Ground for the first day of the upcoming second Test match, only four have been allotted to South African fans and the remaining 15 have been reserved for local fans. Expect a highly partisan crowd that should provide a cracking atmosphere!

Knowledge of how the pitch will behave
Undoubtedly one of the biggest advantages of playing at home is insight into the character of the pitch in question and how it will behave over the course of a Test match, and it is only natural that Pakistan will be looking to exploit this against their opponents. For example, while the Pakistan think tank will know all too well that the first day of a Test in these parts will offer torpid conditions unhelpful to swing bowlers, they will be equally aware that come the third day, the pitch should offer torpid conditions unhelpful to swing bowlers. By the fifth day, Misbah and Co will know, with enviable insider's knowledge, that they will be faced with torpid conditions unhelpful to swing bowlers.

Relationship with pitch curator
In the best tradition of cricket on the subcontinent, Misbah will not only enjoy a rapport with the pitch curator, he will in all likelihood be related to him. The curator will be a cranky but endearing personality whose relationship with the captain verges more on the avuncular than the strictly professional, his having seen said captain grow up playing cricket on these very grounds, and who therefore no doubt lends a sympathetic ear to the skipper's requests for a particular type of pitch.

"There's a pitch curator here?" asked the Pakistan skipper with apparently genuine surprise. Oh, that Misbah. Such a kidder!

R Rajkumar tweets here.
All quotes and "facts" in this piece are made up, but you knew that already, didn't you?