All of cricket's worlds in the desert
Three kinds of soil were laid down to make cricket pitches. At first glance there was nothing too different about them, but once the preparation was complete, the contrasts were obvious. The first had sunken a little lower than ground level, the second was higher than the grass around it, and the third significantly more raised.
The pitches were made to resemble a Pakistani, Gabba and WACA surface respectively, and Mudassar Nazar could almost not believe his eyes when he saw the amount of variation close up.
"If I had that available to me when I was playing Test cricket, I would definitely have been better prepared," he said.
The players passing through the ICC Academy in Dubai Sports City will be. The high-performance centre there seeks to develop cricketers who can play in any conditions, and its doors are open to cricketers from the UAE and elsewhere. The academy is run as a joint venture between Dubai Sports City - a facility founded by three Emirati entrepreneurs with the blessing of Sheikh Mohammed - and the ICC, whose offices are across the road.
Alongside the cricket facility is a football school, run by former Real Madrid player Michel Salgado, which contains a full-sized FIFA-approved artificial pitch. Ernie Els has designed a golf course, there is an American football league, and by the end of this year there will also be a swimming facility, fitness centre and three-star hotel. The aim is to create a sports world. For cricketers that means unprecedented access to information and experience they would only otherwise get through extensive travel.
The two cricket ovals have outfields made of rye grass. Each has ten pitches, of which half are created from Australasian soil and half from Asian. In the nets there are 35 strips. A third of them resemble pitches in Australia and South Africa, another third those in the subcontinent, and the last third England. There are also six indoor nets: two are fast, bouncy pitches, another two are batsman-friendly, and the last two have a specially laid underfloor that creates the bounce and turn of a raging turner.
They allow for acclimatisation to the entire international cricket scene in one place. "It's fantastic for the growth of players," Nazar, head coach at the academy, said. "It means cricketers can develop a range of skills in one place."
England made use of the facility ahead of their tour to India last year, spending most of their time on the spin-friendly surfaces. They went on to win the series 2-1. David Jenkins, the academy's general manager, proudly said they credited some portion of the win to the time they spent in Dubai.
Elite teams are welcome to use the academy, at a cost, whenever the need arises, and Jenkins hopes more of them will stop over in "the middle of the cricket world", but the main focus of the centre is "to support the second tier". Associate countries are charged different rates - relative to their size and cash flow - and many have made used of the services there.
The academy has hosted a camp for Associate batsmen; Kenya played home matches at Sports City, owing to the security situation in their country; while Ireland and Afghanistan, who have also made extensive use of the venue, will play an Intercontinental Cup match there in December. The academy is one of five venues that will host next year's Under-19 World Cup.
For teams looking for specific expertise to improve, such as Associates and age-group sides, an attractive feature of the academy is the technology. The bowling machines include one that replicates a bowling arm - instead of just a chute from which the ball emerges - and another where the batsman looks at a giant video screen where he can see the bowler he will be facing, and the ball is released through the screen. Many of the world's leading quicks are available as net bowlers via this machine, as Kepler Wessels discovered.
Having not put on a pair of pads since he retired, he kitted out and went to face some deliveries for a television insert. Wessels fronted up to Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan, and was impressed with the machine as a practice tool.
For wicketkeepers there is an area behind the batsmen, conceived by Rodney Marsh, which allows them match-conditions practice. There are also various video-replay systems, including one that allows analysis of bowling actions. Also on offer is Hawk-Eye, which is used to assist in developing umpires.
Coaches have a space here too. The academy offers Level 1 courses and is trying to expand. Last year Cricket Australia ran a Level 2 course in conjunction in Dubai. People who qualify from these courses will be recorded in the database of coaches the academy can call on to help with its various programmes. The academy hires five full-time coaches and relies on a network of others to fulfil its other main function - cricket-skills training for children in Dubai.
The Cricket Cubs programme is similar to its footballing equivalent next door, Soccertots, and caters for children from two and a half to six. It teaches them basic hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills. "It's also about creating meaningful bonding time between parent and child so the adult will throw the ball and encourage their child to hit it back to them," Jenkins explained. "The hope is that they will take those games home with them and play them there as well." Over 500 children have signed up.
Nazar has seen the demographic change over the years. "In the 1970s, it was mostly Pakistani and Indian expats playing cricket here, then we had Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, and now South Africans, Australians, even a few Europeans. We've had children from Denmark, Austria, everywhere."
Many of them go on to play in the academy's age-group sides, which are fast becoming competitive teams on a global stage. The Under-13 and Under-18 teams recently travelled to Kenya, where they had matches against the hosts, Uganda and Tanzania. Nazar said he was surprised to see the UAE children "really standing up to those guys". They won a few matches - proof, for Nazar, "we are moving in the right direction".
The idea is to produce players who will eventually represent the UAE, a side that has grown in recent years. They missed out on direct qualification for the 2015 World Cup by one point and have shown distinct improvement. The composition of the team is currently largely expatriate-based and made up of older players. Nazar sees one of his challenges as trying to turn that around.
"You get a lot of 35- and 40-year-olds playing for the UAE because we lose a lot of youngsters," he said. "Once you are 18 years old, you need to be on your own visa to stay in the country and not your parents' one. A lot of people that age go overseas for further studies and not all of them come back or carry on playing cricket. But the route is available for them to play for the UAE, and we're seeing more and more of them go that way."
It's not difficult to build a cricket culture here because many of the immigrants are from cricket-playing nations, but until the academy started, there was no place for the culture to express itself. "There was a lack of quality facilities and we would see kids playing in car parks or big bits of desert. It was a sport crying out for more facilities," Jenkins said. Now there is a dedicated space for cricket and it has expanded to include as much of the community as possible.
Corporate tournaments are held at the academy and they are looking at starting a schools competition as well. The indoor oval can be used all year round and is increasingly popular. Both Jenkins and Nazar expect its role to grow.
Once the Sports City is complete, the cricket academy will be at the heart of it, and the game's place in Emirati society will hopefully be sealed.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent