Gems Modern Academy set the stage for ILT20 with Schools Cup win for Gulf Giants

Fiery final against The Winchester School evoked just the sort of fervour the new T20 league is craving

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Ahead of the second season of the DP World International League T20, the organisers stated that one of their aims for creating a greater fan following will be fostering tribalism and rivalries between their teams.

The UAE’s T20 league, which returns on Friday in Sharjah, is just one year old, so it stands to reason there are no long-standing enmities just yet.

Maybe the six franchises could borrow some of the fire that was on show in the final of the first ILT20 Schools Cup tournament. Gems Modern Academy became the pioneering maiden champions, as they beat fellow Dubai side The Winchester School by six wickets in the final.

The competition has been organised with a view to forging a tighter bond between the ILT20 and the community which should be its audience.

It comprised 36 teams from all over the UAE. The teams were split into six groups of six. The winning team in each conference were the representatives of one each of the ILT20 franchises.

More than 500 teenagers took part in the competition, with each presumably now feeling a greater affinity to the ILT20 franchises than they did at this time last year.

Which is all very wholesome stuff. And yet the final was laced with plenty of venom. As Gems Modern set about chasing the 169 they needed to take the title, the two sides became embroiled in a number of disputes.

At times, players had to be held apart from each other, and tempers doused. Winchester were bayed on by vociferous support from beyond the picket fence.

When victory was finally sealed, a number of the winning players made for the boundary line to gloat.

The frayed emotions were perhaps understandable. Many of the players were playing the last match of their school careers, and, according to player of the match Akshat Rai, this already feels like the most significant event available for schoolkids.

“This definitely feels like the biggest schools competition,” said Rai, whose innings of 74 from 53 balls underpinned the run chase.

“You are one of 36 teams battling it out, first to represent your [ILT20] team, then to win it for your team.

“It is definitely one of the biggest tournaments. It is great exposure. Playing all over the UAE has been a great experience.

“This was my last ever school game, as it was for a lot of the players, so it felt really good to finish off on a high, alongside people I have played with for seven years.”

Gems Modern’s success maintained the winning run for Gulf Giants. They were representing the franchise who were the first ILT20 champions last season.

The stars of the first team were on the neighbouring field while the schools final was played out at the ICC Academy. Andy Flower was running the Giants through their paces ahead of their opening game against Sharjah Warriors on Friday.

While it is not guaranteed that all those who were wearing the orange of the Giants in the schools final will remain fans of the franchise, Rai says the initiative has worked well.

“When we were picked by Gulf Giants, we knew they were the champions, and we have friends like Aayan [Khan] and Sanchit [Sharma] in their team,” said Rai, who played for the UAE side that reached the Under 19 Asia Cup final last month.

“We felt like we had to win it for them as well as for us. I definitely have a lot more love for Gulf Giants this year.”

The feisty end to the game was met with a chuckle by the coach of the winning side, Shafiq Ahmed, who cannily coaxed calm out of his excitable young charges.

That in itself was a fair effort. Shafiq is a famously jittery watcher of cricket. His son is the Pakistan opener Abdullah Shafique. He has never watched him play live, as he gets too nervous.

He was thrilled by the achievement of his young players, though. “This is a very special moment, especially for boys who are now moving on from school, and they performed really well,” Shafiq said.

“The batters controlled the chase really well. They were watching the scoreboard, they knew what total they needed, and they batted accordingly.

“This tournament was a good initiative as it didn’t just involve schools from Dubai, but ones from all over the Emirates as well - Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

“To finish top out of 36 teams I think is a big achievement for us and for me as the coach also. The boys played an excellent final.”

Updated: January 16, 2024, 2:51 AM