August 11, 2002

Tangiers Cricket Stadium: a new chapter in a construction tycoon's dream

The world's newest international cricket venue, the 141st to stage one-day cricket, will be unveiled on Monday in a most unlikely location, at Tangiers in French-speaking northern Africa.

South Africa will take on Pakistan in the first match of the Morocco Cup 2002, a triangular tournament also involving Sri Lanka that marks the latest chapter in the growth of a remarkable cricketing empire.

Its all part of an ambitious Dubai-based construction tycoon's dream - part commercial, part utilitarian - to globalise the game of cricket, especially throughout the Arab world.

Abdur Rahmann Bukhatir's involvement with cricket started in the 1970's in the desert city of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, when he created the Cricketer's Benefit Fund Series (CBFS), a fundraising vehicle for retired, underpaid Asian cricketers of yesteryear.

But the CBFS mushroomed into far more than a cricketers' pension scheme. Sharjah held its first official One-Day International in 1981 and by the 1990's the CBFS tri-series had developed into a regular biannual event, feeding Asia's apparently insatiable appetite for limited overs cricket.

And as the value of television rights soared throughout the 1990's, Sharjah became a financial honeypot, offering Asian cricket boards a valuable revenue stream and the players astronomical prize money.

But the new millennium brought fresh challenges, as the CBFS was faced was confronted by a grave image crisis, as Sharjah became embroiled in the match fixing scandal that rocked international cricket.

For years the plethora of matches played at Sharjah (no other venue has staged more ODIs) had attracted suspicions that bookmakers had successfully fixed matches.

Amidst allegations that the tournament was fixed in favour of Pakistan, the Indian government stopped their team from visiting Sharjah for three years.

With England and Australia also wary of playing there, the CBFS's future appeared to be in jeopardy, as the value of its television rights plummeted.

Ironically, the crisis only served to broaden Buhatir's horizons, as the CBFS moved into television production, setting up Taj Television and launching a dedicated sports channel called TEN Sports, a development that paved the way for the new "made-for-television" stadium in Tangiers.

Morocco will now provide TEN Sports with the compelling cricket content that it needs to compete with the more established sports channels such as Star Sports and ESPN that dominate the Asian television market.

And despite its francophone heritage, the location has two distinct attractions: a perfect Mediterranean climate that provides for a long season during the southern hemisphere winter and a nearby Asian population in Europe that Bukhatir's hopes will embrace the venture.

"Morocco is very close to Europe and it will be very easy for Indians and Pakistanis living in Spain and Portugal to come and watch matches," said Bukhatir.

But although CBFS's involvement is primarily a commercial venture, Bukhatir is a fanatical cricket fan, possessing a genuine philanthropists desire to develop the game, a fact borne out by the scope and scale of his financial investment.

They have already pumped close to USD 15 million into Morocco, building two stadiums in Tangiers and Rabat, as well as employing three full-time coaches, including former Indian all-rounder Mohinder Amaranath, to work with local cricketers.

The infrastructure and coaches will help the Federation Royale Marocaine de Cricket (FRMC) - which Bukhatir helped set-up and acquire Affiliate Status of the International Cricket Council - to foster the game.

Currently there are just 280 regular cricketers and eight teams in Morocco competing in a 30-over league, but Amaranath believes that the FRMC can generate much greater interest in the game.

"Cricket in Morocco is like a new language," he said. "When we started two years ago no-one knew about the game, but they now better. The game will grow in the future as people become more aware."

Perhaps the CBFS is unlikely to convert large numbers of Morocco's football loving, cafe lounging public to cricket, but they are certainly trying to capture local interest in Tangiers, offering free entry into the stadium and the chance to win valuable prizes to those who turn up to watch the games.

And the spectators are not the only ones offered incentives either, as the CBFS has put up an astonishing USD 250,000 pot of prize money for the teams, ensuring that the triangular tournament will be taken very seriously indeed.

At the moment the 5000-seater Tangiers Cricket Stadium is in a state of frantic half-completion. With 24 hours to go till the curtain rises bulldozers are still landscaping, walls are still being painted and terracotta tiles are still being hammered onto the roof.

Situated adjacent to the verdant lawns of the Royal Golf Club, looking out on to the hills surrounding Tangiers that are dotted with plush white villas, the venue will be spectacular when finished.

The interior is closer to completion and very impressive, with excellent state-of-the-art facilities for the players, officials, media and the entourage of VIPs who are being invited to the inaugural tournament.

ICC match referee, Mike Procter, who inspected the venue's facilities, was fulsome in his support: "The stadium is ideal for international cricket and I have no hesitation in recommending its approval."

Crucially, the cricket facilities are finished. There are seven practice nets all in working order, the outfield is striped in lush, green grass and the pitch boosts a gleaming white colour, similar in look to the high scoring surfaces common at Sharjah.

The exact nature of the pitch though is a point of conjecture. The two club standard matches played on it in June suggested that it would suit the spinners, but local observers have suggested that it has now hardened up, potentially offering the fast bowlers some pace and bounce.

That will be welcomed by the likes of hard-hitting strokeplayers such as Sanath Jayasuriya, Lance Klusener and Shahid Afridi, who will already be relishing the challenge of clearing the relatively short boundaries.

Certainly the CBFS will be hoping that the new venue starts with a bang. An exciting, high scoring tournament will go a long way to justifying the whole ambitious project.

But perhaps the most crucial factor that will determine whether the CBFS's risky decision to delve into television is successful or not will be whether they can lure India over to play in the near future.

To that end the CBFS is desperate for Morocco's reputation to be squeaky clean, welcoming the advice of the ICC's Anti Corruption Unit enthusiastically and taking the issue of security seriously.

Some measures are mere window dressing, such as the signboard nailed to the main entrance that announces in bold red writing that, "BETTING AND GAMBLING ON CRICKET IS ILLEGAL AND STRICTLY PROHIBITED."

But the widespread use of video surveillance outside the dressing rooms and in the team hotels, as well as the now standard mobile phone ban, will make it harder for determined bookmakers to communicate with corrupt players.

And should the Tangiers Cricket Stadium be successful in fostering a clean image, there is even the possibility of becoming a neutral Test venue, as security fears continue to disrupt cricket in Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

However, talk of Test cricket here is premature, first the locals have to be persuaded to embrace the game, a task that starts in earnest this week.