Though one of the world's most popular sports, cricket is not a game normally associated with the Middle East. However, Abu Dhabi is moving to change this perception and to draw some of cricket's biggest names to the emirate as part of a bold strategy to develop the sport locally and raise its international profile.
Over the past decade or so, cricket has become a far more global and lucrative sport. With cricket increasingly becoming a game packaged for television, a growing number of games are being played as more countries are playing the game.
A number of new first class stadiums have sprung up around the world. They are a result of the policy of the International Cricket Council (ICC), the game's governing body, to promote the sport to a wider audience, as well as establish venues where matches can be played outside the usual playing seasons of leading cricketing nations.
While Sharjah led the way with the Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium, opened in the early 1980s, Abu Dhabi has now taken strike, having built a world-class stadium and staged a number of international series featuring some of the world's leading sides. This includes a three-match tournament between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which wrapped up on May 23.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi's minister of higher education and scientific research and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Cricket Club (ADCC), has no doubts that the investments needed to provide world-class facilities and to bring such events to the emirate are worthwhile.
"It has been a great success and all three days of the event have been well organised and received with large crowds turning out," he said on the sidelines of the final Sri Lanka-Pakistan match. "We and the Abu Dhabi government are very keen to see that cricket puts the city on the international cricket map."
And getting onto the map is what international cricket is all about these days, as the game has become a multi-million-dollar sport. Abu Dhabi's move into the international cricket arena also signifies a change in the administration of the game. While Australia may currently dominate cricket on the pitch, and England is the home of the game, the balance of power in the sport has shifted to Asia. As much as 70% of cricket's revenue is generated in India alone, most of it through television broadcast rights and advertising. As part of this shift, the ICC has relocated its headquarters from England to Dubai, bringing it closer to the new centre of the game.
The emirate has invested heavily in promoting the game, with the jewel in the crown of Abu Dhabi cricket being the Zayed Cricket Stadium, completed in 2004 at a cost of $22m and described as one of the finest grounds in the world. Between the at least $1.35m needed annually for the upkeep of the stadium and its lush turf and pitches and the estimated cost of $2.7m staging the recent three match series, it is clear Abu Dhabi is making a strong investment in cricket's future.
Though the headlines concentrate on the big name sides attracted to the Zayed Cricket Stadium, the emirate has an active domestic competition, the backbone of which is the expatriate community, mainly from the Indian subcontinent. However, an increasing number of locals are also taking up the sport, both at the junior level and in the 40 teams that make up the Abu Dhabi cricket league. Its players also turn out for the United Arab Emirates side that takes part in tournaments against other second tier nations such as Scotland, one level below the major test playing teams.
On May 23, Sheikh Nahyan announced plans to upgrade the stadium and to bolster the game at the local level.
"We are already in the planning stage to add on some facilities to the stadium," he said in an interview with the local press. "We have already decided to build a full-fledged cricket academy that will help serve the community here. We have earmarked the grounds for that."
Abu Dhabi's standing at the international level also looks set to get a boost, with the announcement that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is in talks to take over the operational charge of Zayed Cricket Stadium Abu Dhabi next year.
PCB chairman Nasim Ashraf said on May 22 that an agreement with the cricket club in Abu Dhabi would be signed soon. The deal would see the Pakistani governing body assist in organising major cricketing events at the ground and increase the profile of the game in Abu Dhabi.
Leading sides such as India, West Indies, South Africa and Sri Lanka would feature in future tournaments, with Pakistan committed to taking part as well, he said.
"This is a great cricketing venue. It is our duty to support it. We will be sending 'A' teams and other junior teams," Ashraf said while in Abu Dhabi to watch the Pakistan-Sri Lanka series. "We'll also participate and help in organising an international event here every year."
Though Abu Dhabi may never challenge sides such as Australia or India for dominance of the game on the field, it is investing in the future at the local level and to give the emirate a standing on the international cricketing stage. On and off the field, Abu Dhabi has made the perfect sales pitch.