When the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) announced plans for its own Twenty20 cricket tournament this year, observers might have been forgiven for thinking: Really? Not another one?
The calendar is starting to feel saturated with identikit tournaments around the world. All featuring similar players, with artificially constructed teams bearing spurious titles, occasionally with a tenuous association to a town or area.
The whole “cricketainment” shtick is wearing thin, to the extent that even the International Cricket Council (ICC) is apparently feeling compelled to act, limiting the number of tournaments players can sign up for. And – worryingly for UAE – it is reportedly considering not allowing Associate nations to host such events.
So how can the new competition for the Emirates, the UAE T20x, possibly differ from what has already gone before, and what is already existing? And not just in the global marketplace, either. Theirs is the fifth major limited-overs competition planned in the country for next season to run from December 19 to January 11 in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
The organisers are confident they are creating something to set them apart.
“This is a national asset that we are building for UAE,” said Salman Sarwar Butt, the chief executive of OPI, the sports management company organising the tournament in partnership with the ECB.
“It needs to address cricket development, and it has the potential to do that across the GCC. It will address sports tourism and sports entertainment, through the eyes of cricket.
“We also want to place this internationally alongside the Full Member leagues. There is the [Pakistan Super League or PSL], [Caribbean Premier League], the Big Bash League. We want this league to be alongside those in terms of its quality and viewership.”
Butt speaks from a position of knowledge. He was the managing director of the PSL when it was first launched in the UAE in 2015, having already helped set up the country’s national T20 competition before that.
He knows the new venture needs a point of difference, and he believes there will be many. Chief among them will be the accent on innovation.
That means being a laboratory for the ICC to experiment with new technologies. It also means new players, ones who might not otherwise get the chance to be exposed to a competition of this ilk.
There is space in the 16-man squad for each of the five franchises for well-known international stars. “To bring in the rest of the eyeballs,” as Butt puts it.
The remaining 10 players, however, are to be emerging players, many of whom will be from beyond cricket’s mainstream.
Butt hopes as many as 15 or 20 different countries will have players in the tournament. As a comparison to the Indian Premier League (IPL), Nepal became just the 13th country to be represented when Sandeep Lamichhane debuted for Delhi Daredevils this season. And that in a competition that has been going on for 11 seasons.
“The question is, how are we different from anyone else?” Butt said.
“We are different in a few ways. As a brand, we want to differentiate ourselves through innovation in everything we do. We want to be inclusive. And we want to have a development agenda.
“There are few leagues around that talk about development. Here we have the opportunity of developing local and international talent.”
Three players in each squad will be UAE cricketers, providing opportunities which the players have long deserved, according to Zayed Abbas, an ECB member.
“Before people used to say, ‘Give me a chance, I will show what I can do’. Today, you are given a chance,” Abbas said.
“You are already there. I think the Associate teams are only going to get better.
“Why? Because now we are able to compete with everyone. All Associate members can play against anyone, and we will be on the rankings, starting from January 1.
“The same goes for UAE. You have seen how our players and our team have succeeded in terms of ranking and performance.
“One of the reasons for that has been that we have international exposure. We didn’t have that in the past.
“In the past everything was decided by the World Cup – whether you are in or not. That is it. If you are not in, forget about it. For four years, you are nowhere.
“Now? We can play with anyone we want, and hopefully we will have some international fixtures coming soon.”
Butt also believes that, unlike tournaments from elsewhere that are transposed here, the teams will resonate with UAE residents.
“Most of the tournaments that have happened here – PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board] playing bilaterals, PSL, or the IPL – it is targeted towards a certain community,” Butt said.
“This is a national asset. We want this event to entertain everyone in the UAE. There is a cricket-centric audience, there is a sports-loving audience, locally and internationally as well. We want to be able to target all of them.
“One of the strategies we have is to talk to our audience through our players. Our players are going to be coming from more than 15 or 20 countries.
“Our medium of connection with the audience is going to be the players. Our entire marketing campaign is based on them connecting with the fans at large.”