UAE cricket April 20, 2014

The other T20 league in Dubai

Teams with Indian connections, a large presence of Pakistan players and a sprinkling of overseas cricketers make Dubai's Superstars Twenty20 tournament an interesting premise

Roughly 25km from the Dubai International Stadium, which is hosting a sold-out IPL double-header, another franchise tournament with an international flavour is about to begin. Out in the middle of the floodlit, tree-ringed Fairgrounds Oval in Dubai's Academic City, two teams stand in line, facing each other.

Wings Ahmedabad Aces, in grey, are about to face Afridi Peshawar Panthers, in light green, in the opening match of the Superstars Twenty20 tournament. The Bollywood songs that have been issuing out of a row of speakers arranged behind one of the square boundaries segue into the national anthems of the UAE, India and Pakistan. The Ahmedabad players stare blankly ahead when India's anthem plays, and look a touch embarrassed when a man with a handheld video camera walks slowly past each of them. This is understandable, since none of them are from India.

The Ahmedabad team is filled with big names, including Shahzaib Hasan, Yasir Hameed and Aizaz Cheema, who have all played for Pakistan; the former West Indies allrounder Ryan Hinds; two Zimbabweans in Charles Coventry - who held the record for the highest individual score in ODIs not that long ago - and Glenn Querl; Afghanistan's Gulbadin Naib; and the UAE batsman Shaiman Anwar.

What then is the Ahmedabad connection? "My wife is from Gujarat," says Neeraj Ramamoorthy, who owns the franchise. "I wanted Mumbai, but it was already taken."

Ramamoorthy is the chairman of the Wings Group, a Dubai-based petroleum trading company. When the Superstars T20 isn't on, Wings Ahmedabad Aces simply becomes Wings SRT Cricket Club, which plays in various domestic tournaments in the UAE.

Why SRT? "Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar," says Ramamoorthy. "We added it to our name last year, after he retired."

Afridi Peshawar Panthers, however, aren't named after Shahid Afridi. In other tournaments, they become Afridi CC, a club owned and captained by Khan Mohammad Afridi, who runs Afridi Transport. Their team today isn't filled with too many instantly recognisable names, but that's only because their most famous player isn't available.

"Younis Khan has a foot injury," says Rahul Dalwale, the tournament manager. "He landed in Dubai this afternoon, and he will definitely play Peshawar's next match."

Dalwale and his friend Abdul Azim Ansari, the tournament director, run Webchannel, a software company that is organising the tournament along with the Dubai Cricket Council, which is affiliated to the Emirates Cricket Board.

"The tournament is recognised by the Board, and all the players who are contracted with other boards, like the PCB, have to get an NOC to play," says Dalwale. In all, 16 teams are playing this, the second edition of the tournament.

"Sharjeel Khan was the player of the tournament last year," Dalwale says. "Maybe that wasn't the main reason, but I'm sure it helped him get selected for Pakistan. Even Ahmed Shehzad was there last year."

Since Pakistani players don't get to play the IPL, the Superstars tournament is full of them. Apart from the ones playing today's game, Dalwale pulls an impressive roll-call out of the top of his head: Sharjeel, Imran Nazir, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Anwar Ali, Nasir Jamshed, Hammad Azam, and he may have forgotten a few names.

"Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal are contracted with Yas Sports, who own the Rawalpindi franchise," Dalwale adds. "So there is a chance they might play from the quarterfinals onwards."

Peshawar have set Ahmedabad 129 to win. Aizaz Cheema, who has taken 1 for 23 in his four overs, is relaxing by the boundary edge. This is the first time he's playing this tournament.

"Since it's the off-season in Pakistan, it's a good opportunity for all of us to come here, keep in touch with the game, and not become rusty," he says. "The PCB has no objections to us playing as long as there is no other cricket around. There are professional cricketers from all around the world, and it's competitive cricket."

The total prize fund for the tournament, including cash awards for the winning team, the runners-up, and the individual performers, is 120,000 dirhams, approximately US $33,000. Sachin Rana, Debabrata Das and Shardul Thakur, all of whom are uncapped Indian players, earned the same amount at the IPL auction. You wonder how much an Ajmal or a Shehzad would stand to make in the Indian league, given the chance.

"It's a matter that governments have to decide," Cheema says, when asked about this. "As long as no Pakistan players are in the IPL, it's a good opportunity for them to play here and enhance their credentials."

Performing in last year's Superstars T20 wasn't the reason Sharjeel was selected for Pakistan, Cheema says, but he adds that playing here may have helped the young batsman grow as a player.

"They expect a lot from you when you are an overseas player, a professional, and that match-winning ability comes in," he says. "And the local players get to play with cricketers from all over the world, and they learn a lot from them."

These sound exactly like the positives everyone mentions when they talk about the IPL. The setting could not be more different, though. Two cats slink through gaps between the plastic chairs on which the 50 or so people at the ground - spectators, organisers, players - sit and watch the match.

A man with a mike sits next to the scorers, and delivers crisp Urdu commentary that even the players can hear. A balding man in a T-shirt that says 'Hello 2014' gives two children catching practice on a large grassy patch outside the boundary.

Ryan Hinds wanders over to the scorers, who rib him about his figures: two overs, 28 runs, no wickets. "This is T20. It happens," he tells them. "You watch IPL? Mitchell Johnson? Even he travels the distance!"

Hinds stops to chat about the tournament, and about playing cricket in the UAE.

"The standard is very high," he says. "There are a lot of current internationals, and the local boys are pretty good too. The owners and the Dubai Cricket Council put up a very good show. The downside is that domestic cricket isn't promoted as well as it should be. UAE have qualified for the World T20, the World Cup, so cricket needs more exposure in the media and so forth."

Hinds has been in the UAE since last April, and has played for Wings in a number of different tournaments.

"I was part of the historic Danube Test, which was the first ever two-day game played in the UAE. Wings won that game," he says. "Apart from that there's the TOB 25-over, 50-over and T20 tournaments, and a 50-over tournament run by the Abu Dhabi Cricket Council.

"I was there for last year's edition of this tournament as well, which we won. This year, I think it has improved, in terms of more exposure to international players. There are no weak teams. What it needs, maybe, is more local players, more Under-19s. It would be better balanced."

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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