This November, the third edition of the Abu Dhabi T10 cricket league takes place in the UAE capital with new teams, new players and a renewed intention to disrupt the sport in a way not seen since the introduction of Twenty20 in 2003.
Shortening the shortest form of cricket is the brainchild of UAE-based Indian billionaire Shaji Ul Mulk, whose diverse portfolio of business interests includes everything from healthcare and commodites to real estate and energy. The man behind the Abu Dhabi T10 made his fortune in aluminium; now he is hoping to strike gold as a sporting entrepreneur too.
After successfully providing proof of concept of 10-over matches with the first edition of the T10 League in 2017, Ul Mulk won the hearts, minds and, more importantly, the official sanctioning of the ICC ahead of the 2018 tournament. That has enabled him to further elevate T10 and this year a host of new sponsors and broadcast partners are demonstrating the commercial potential of the product.
“Getting the ICC on board is really the key to success of any tournament,” Abu Dhabi T10 chairman Ul Mulk tells Sport Industry Insider. “You can’t conduct high-profile international cricket without them so that has to be the starting point of any ambition. Once the ICC support is there, you have the endorsement to take it forward.
“Now we have runs on the board, so to speak, and that makes us more appealing to investors and sponsors; more credibility means bigger names want to be involved. That’s why we were able to sign a partnership agreement with Abu Dhabi this year – giving us a new name, a new home and increased visibility of the league.”
After two seasons in Sharjah, the UAE capital will play host to what is now the Abu Dhabi T10 after an all-encompassing deal was penned with Abu Dhabi Sports Council, Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Abu Dhabi Cricket. Eithad Airways, Mai Dubai and Emirates NBD are among those to have joined as sponsors.
Beyond that, there have been numerous rights agreements struck including with Sony and several OTT providers to ensure the tournament’s reach is expanded. The 2019 Abu Dhabi T10 will be shown in the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, the UK, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the United States. The latter deal will be of particular interest to the ICC, which has long viewed as the US as a holy grail of sorts in terms of untapped commercial potential.
“T10 is an evolution of both cricket and the human mind,” Ul Mulk explains. “Attention spans are shorter and so I think it was natural after T20 to ask ‘what next?’ We definitely see T10 as an entry point for non-cricket fans and of course this is relevant to the American market.
“The Times of India have won the US cricket rights and we are discussing with them how we can make that a big success. The prospect of building a new audience for cricket is very exciting.”
The T10 format means matches last just 90 minutes, meaning triple headers can be played on one day – something unseen before in cricket. At the Abu Dhabi T10, the 30-minute gap between each match will be filled by live entertainment, with a selection of ‘top Bollywood artists’ set to perform.
On the pitch, the quality will be undeniably high as the likes of Dwayne Bravo, Shane Watson, Moammad Amir, Hashim Amla and Eoin Morgan are all set to play. Unfortunately, as has become the norm, Indian cricket’s governing body, the BBCI, decided to maintain its stance of has not releasing Indian players for overseas competitions – fearing it will dilute the appeal of the flagship Indian Premier League (IPL).
Still, the Abu Dhabi T10 is packed with international talent – 650 players signed up for the 2019 draft, almost twice as many as last year. While most short-form cricket tournaments enforce quotas to ensure domestic players get significant game time, the Abu Dhabi T10 has not been so strict – each of the eight franchises are only required to have two UAE players in their squad, with just one of those in the starting XI. Ul Mulk feels it is necessary to ensure the quality of the tournament, insisting that there is still much to be gained for UAE cricketers.
“Most leagues have limitations on the number of foreign players but the ICC accepted that we can have more and so we have a tremendous number of international cricketers playing at one time, which is great from an audience perspective.
“We definitely see T10 as an entry point for non-cricket fans and of course this is relevant to the American market “
“Of course we still feel a responsibility to the UAE and that’s why we have started a new emerging talent development programme where again young players have the chance to play in the squad. UAE players are playing regularly at associate level but the quality of the cricket is a different level in the Abu Dhabi T10.
“Giving UAE cricketers exposure to world-class players like this is really a money-can’t-buy experience for them. It is an invaluable platform.”
For the first time this year there will also be UAE representation in the form of an Emirati franchise, Team Abu Dhabi. Ul Mulk believes the move demonstrates the Abu Dhabi Government’s “belief in, and long-term commitment to, the tournament”.
Abu Dhabi is not alone in putting its faith in an alternative format of the game. In the UK, newly launched competition The Hundred has been making headlines recently – a fact not lost on Ul Mulk.
“The Hundred is all part of the innovation and I think it is great to try things out and see what works. Their 100-ball format is somewhere between T10 and T20 and the England Cricket Board thinks it is a format that English fans are ready for so why not? We should not be afraid of experimenting to try to find the ideal format in each country or region.”
Despite the obvious growth in the profile of the Abu Dhabi T10, there are plenty of warning signs not to take success for granted. The Afghanistan Premier League has not returned for a second season after financial issues and the much-hyped UAE T20x did not even make it to its first edition. For Ul Mulk, sustainability is the aim of the game and he believes the Abu Dhabi T10 is a product with genuine potential for longevity.
Team 8 ❌#TeamAbuDhabi ✅— Team Abu Dhabi Cricket (@TeamADCricket) October 16, 2019
We’re proud to represent Abu Dhabi and take the 8th and final spot in the @t10league!
Thank you to @abudhabisc, @dctabudhabi and @etihadairways for supporting us on this journey.
#InAbuDhabi @AbuDhabiCricket pic.twitter.com/VITDpwaaxW
“The UAE T20x was a private enterprise that couldn’t meet all the requirements to get the proper licensing. There is no comparison between them and us but what happened with that league shows that the challenges are huge; it is extremely difficult to create an event that makes commercial sense for the investors and has a clear path to progress.
“We recognise this third season is vital for us in terms of demonstrating the maturity of the product. The response from our stakeholders around the world – the players, the sponsors, the TV audience – last year encouraged us to go stronger this year and now our biggest challenge is to satisfy the high expectations they, and we, have.
“But really the aim now remains the same as when it started. Five years from now we want to have a global footprint where T10 will become for cricket what Formula One is for motorsport. We want multiple tournaments across multiple countries around the world. Our vision is clear.”