When the Indoor Cricket World Cup came to Dubai in September 2017, few knew what to expect.
The organisers were taking the game beyond its established regions for the first time, and were nervous about what might happen at a tin warehouse in Al Quoz Industrial Estate.
They need not have worried. It was a roaring success, with hundreds of people turning up to watch – way more than the number of fans who go to see the full UAE national team play in international competition outside.
The home team performed admirably themselves, and the competition even prompted a meeting between the indoor game’s independent governing body and cricket’s administrators, the ICC.
All of which confirmed what many already knew: that indoor cricket is a massively popular pastime in the UAE.
Less than three years on, though, the indoor scene has been brought to its knees by coronavirus.
Two and a half months of having their doors locked because of the pandemic has left many sports centres across the country fighting for survival.
Chandra Shekhar Jha is one of three businessmen who took over the running of Insportz, which hosted the World Cup in 2017, in February.
Sports centres were closed on March 15, and have only been permitted to open at 50 per cent capacity since the end of May, with other safety measures meaning the actual take up is much less than that.
“As a business venture, it has been a shock to us, but we are still pumping in money into the centre,” Jha said.
“Even if we have to cut costs, we won’t compromise on quality. Running the centre is at a higher cost now because of the sanitisation measures.
“It has been disheartening, but we understand sport isn’t the top priority for everyone at the moment.
“Everyone’s primary focus is on their jobs and families. Sports is just an add-on.”
Most picturesque cricket stadiums in the world
Jha says Insportz have been making five to 20 per cent of what they would usually make at this time of year since the phased reopening last month.
“Even though the centres have been reopened, we cannot open at more than 50 per cent, and rental is still 100 per cent,” he said.
“We have also not been able to open competitive sport, so that revenue stream is down. There is definitely a financial burden.”
Despite the lack of income, they have been able to retain all nine staff, including two who have been stuck in India after taking leave before the air travel shutdown.
“We have kept our staff on a 50 per cent salary, so at least they can sustain for this period,” Jha said.
“We haven’t laid off anyone. These are the times we have to support people rather than get rid of them, then hopefully they can support us in our hard times as well.
“We also provide accommodation for our staff, so the only thing they need to take care of is food and supplies, and we have given them some extra money to help.
“Some have required a salary advance, and we are doing all we can to sustain ourselves until this period is over.”
Among the numerous sports centres elsewhere in Al Quoz, United Pro Sports has also been struggling.
“March until Ramadan is usually our best months of the year where we host corporate events, tournaments and Ramadan League in which we have almost 60 teams participating,” Sanjay Asarpota, the owner of United Pro Sports, said.
“This year the revenue has been nil for the complete lockdown period.
"Even after we are allowed to reopen with the 50 per cent capacity, our bookings are barely 5-10 per cent of the usual revenue.
"We expect this trend to continue for more months to come.”
The energy bills that follow opening centres daily in the summer make it unprofitable given the footfall restrictions in place.
Asapota says he is grateful to their landlord for delaying the rent, but that staff have suffered in the fallout.
“Unfortunately we have had to put our team on unpaid leave for the lockdown period,” Asapota said.
“However, we have supported them with payments for their essential requirements as we know they have expenses to manage as well.
“We have requested our landlord to provide rental relief and are waiting for them to revert. However, they have been supportive enough to hold our cheques, which has been a huge relief.
“Since I have another company, United Technology & Trading Co which deals in swimming pools and fountains, we have been able to support United Pro Sports, and will continue to do so in the hope to keep the passion of sports in UAE alive.
“But it is only that much longer we can sustain the losses we have incurred since last few months.”