It is 14 years since Scotland and Kenya played the inaugural first-class match at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Hundreds of domestic and international encounters have taken place in the intervening years but in 2017, His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak decided it was time to shake up Abu Dhabi Cricket.
The Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) was appointed to take over the day-to-day management and finances of Abu Dhabi Cricket Club and Matthew Boucher was named Acting CEO of Abu Dhabi Cricket. His remit was to expand the sport’s reach and to improve the facilities at, and around, the ground.
It has been a busy 10 months for the Englishman and his team, with a full audit of financial and logistical operations leading to a wave of changes to everything from infrastructure to marketing and communications. Getting the house in order was a long process but Abu Dhabi Cricket now looks in excellent shape and has some big development plans in the pipeline.
A YEAR OF BIG CHANGES
Early cricket enhancements included increasing Zayed Cricket Stadium’s capacity to 25,000, as well as installing new floodlights on the two nursery ovals, adding 16 new nets at the Zayed Cricket Academy – including a new dedicated area exclusively for first class counties and international teams, and a revamp of the junior coaching program via a new partnership with Gary Kirsten Cricket. Two new, full-time world-class female coaches have also been hired as Abu Dhabi Cricket looks to connect with a new audience.
Beyond that, new football facilities have also been introduced. Eight 5-a-side pitches and two full-sized FIFA-approved training pitches have been built already, with three more 11-a-side ones to come. The development aligns with Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018 and AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, and is all part of the vision for an integrated multi-sport facility.
“The UAE lives and breathes football, so I don’t think there can ever be too many football pitches,” Boucher explains to Sport Industry Insider. “Our footballing aspirations have timed perfectly with the Sports Council’s hosting of the 2018 FIFA and 2019 AFC events. Both these events have incredibly detailed competition demands and with this in mind, the events have essentially become a catalyst for Abu Dhabi Cricket to utilise separate LOC (Local Organising Committee) budgets and create solutions for those competitions – at Abu Dhabi Cricket.
“There’s also the case of the all-important post-event legacy: we’ll have a continuous pad of 5 FIFA and AFC-approved full-size grass pitches – all with international level floodlights – for our community multi-sport usage by early 2019. That’s a serious statement.’
“Importantly, of course, we’ve also enlarged our cricketing footprint. We’ve been able to leverage off Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s market involvement, use economies of scale and secure ourselves on some attractive payment plans.”
PRIVATE SPONSORSHIP IN PHASE 2
Government spending has certainly proven useful so far but Abu Dhabi Cricket is also examining alternative sources of funding.
“Private sector sponsorship takes time – that’s no secret, and we have to upgrade ourselves first before we start showing off to the corporates. We’re on it though and we’re having some encouraging conversations,” Boucher says.
An increased budget would help fast-track Abu Dhabi Cricket’s goal of becoming the most comprehensive community sports hub in the UAE. There are some excellent facilities already in Abu Dhabi and beyond, with Boucher happy to admit that he and his team take inspiration from other sites – including one illustrious institution 100km up the road in Dubai.
“From an academy and a junior perspective, we’d be foolish not to take cricketing ideas from the ICC Academy, who are arguably the world’s best at what they do,” Boucher says. “It’s been a well-funded facility since 2009 and has a fantastic coaching infrastructure. There’s no shame in saying we keep an eye on how they do things, and we’re always bouncing ideas off David East, Will Kitchen, Andrew Russell and the guys at ICC Academy. They’ve been absolutely brilliant.”
And later this year, Abu Dhabi will host its first standalone international competition.
“We’ll reveal the full details in May,” Boucher confirms. “Of course it’s a pleasure hosting the likes of the PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board] and the BCCI [Board of Cricket Control for India], but in line with our mandate we want to host first-class international events. We want to promote cricket in Abu Dhabi, we want to engage new audiences and we want to promote our stunning emirate to the watching world.”
“It’s going to be a short format, international event, which will take place in October or November. We’re not interested in creating our own franchises but we’re confident that this will be a fantastic event that will bring together the Abu Dhabi community. It’s exciting that we’ll finally be able to make our own cricketing statement.”
ABU DHABI CRICKET’S INTERNATIONALS
The first taste of international action under the new regime came with last year’s Pakistan vs Sri Lanka series. The T20 double header proved particularly fruitful, with 30,000 fans descending on the stadium across two nights, but it remains a major challenge to attract consistent crowds across all formats.
“It goes without saying that we’d love to see better attendances for ODI and Test matches. In terms of Test cricket, what we are seeing in the UAE marries with a worldwide trend. For us in Abu Dhabi, and our friends in Dubai and Sharjah – the Test Match challenge is there for all the venues.
“We’re working on schools and community initiatives and working on programs with worker’s villages to try to up those numbers for all our upcoming matches. Over time we’ll understand our target segments better and we’ll be able to deliver an even stronger marketing and communications plan to enhance those daily Test Match attendances.
“We also have the nuances of the UAE climate to deal with. The Pakistan bilateral series has been coming earlier and earlier, which doesn’t help from a spectator point of view. This year their first Test against Australia is again scheduled for the end of September; it’s a challenge for anyone to pack a stadium full of kids at 2pm on a September afternoon!’
“Until we really host Test matches in the prime times of December or January, or the increasingly popular day / night Test matches, it’s going to be tough. But we’re not alone – there are teams of very capable people at Governing levels working hard to improve the positioning of Test cricket. I’m a traditionalist and love the Test format, so fingers crossed we can really penetrate that Asian market where interest has been dwindling.”
One match always guaranteed to bring in the crowds is India v Pakistan. With the UAE now hosting the Asia Cup in September, after agreeing to step in earlier this month, Abu Dhabi and Dubai face a tense wait to see which emirate will get the marquee contest.
⭐NEWS FLASH ⭐@BCCI confirms #UAE will host the #2018AsiaCup! We can’t wait to host @TheRealPCB, @ACBofficials, @BCBtigers, @OfficialSLC & hopefully also @EmiratesCricket 🤞 in September! 🇮🇳🇧🇩🇦🇫🇱🇰🇵🇰🇦🇪
More news to come…#AbuDhabiCricket #InAbuDhabi @AbuDhabiSC https://t.co/YCQv2NtFyE
— Abu Dhabi Cricket (@AbuDhabiCricket) April 11, 2018
“We’re really looking forward to welcoming India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Hopefully the UAE will qualify too as the sixth team – that would be superb.
“All eyes are on that India v Pakistan group game and it is obviously one we’d love to host in Abu Dhabi. Any India game would be a real treat – they’re the world’s best team according to the ICC rankings and it’ll be the first time they’ve played here for a while. Abu Dhabi’s platform is ready to support the Asia Cricket Council, the BCCI and the Emirates Cricket Board with their final decisions. Our phones are already buzzing with Asia Cup questions, a clear sign of the excitement the announcement has generated within the Abu Dhabi community. We can’t wait!”
Boucher does not appear worried by the prospect of Abu Dhabi missing out on hosting Pakistan vs India and his optimism is understandable. Whatever happens, 2018 looks like being a momentous year for cricket in the capital.
“It feels like we’re really moving toward to turning Abu Dhabi Cricket into a real focus for global cricket and community sport in Abu Dhabi. Those are the twin targets set by Abu Dhabi Sports Council and His Excellency Aref Al Awani – and we are confident they will be achieved.”
Beyond community cricket, the prospect of elevated international esteem will also be hugely appealing for fans in the capital. There is a new dedicated area at the Zayed Cricket Academy to cater for international teams, with a number of first-class counties pencilled in to use the facilities.