MCC v Surrey: Sandstorm adds to charm of ICC Academy in English champion county match

ICC Academy GM Will Kitchen says fixture – hosted in Dubai for first time – meant to 'gauge interest in first-class cricket'

Dubai, March, 24, 2019: Dominic Peter Sibley of MCC in action against Surrey in the Champion County match at the ICC Academy in Dubai. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Paul Radley
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As Morne Morkel sent a gentle loosener down the leg-side to signal the start of the English county cricket season, it was 4 degrees at the fixture’s traditional home ground.

Jamie Smith, the wicketkeeper tasked with fielding the delivery from the towering South African fast bowler, might have been wearing thermal mittens inside his wicketkeeping gloves, and still felt like his fingers were about to snap off.

Were it not for the fact they were playing, 5,500 kilometres away, in early summer in Dubai. As the ball nestled neatly into Smith’s gloves, the thermometer instead read a pleasant 28 degrees.

The champion county fixture – the match between MCC and, in this case, Surrey – always used to be played at Lord’s in London.

This, though, is in fact the seventh time in the past eight years it has been staged in the UAE – and the first time in Dubai.

Last season, MCC played the then county champions Essex in Barbados. Before that, it had six years in Abu Dhabi, as the Lord’s-based club trialled many innovations at Zayed Cricket Stadium, such as pink match-balls, and first-class cricket under floodlights.

For 2019, the fixture has moved up the E11 to the ICC Academy in Dubai Sports City. It remains a trial of sorts, although now more for the venue rather than MCC itself.

The idea of staging Test matches at the Academy has been mooted in the recent past, given the soulless atmosphere when matches in the longest format have been played on the other side of Sports City at Dubai International Stadium.

Pakistan, who regularly use UAE stadia for de facto home matches, have not yet broached the idea of switching Test matches to the Academy.

But, given the smaller crowds the format generally attracts, it stands to reason that it might be a venue better suited to the format than the 25,000-capacity stadium nearby.

Will Kitchen, the ICC Academy’s general manager, said the champion county match is not a trial per se for having Test cricket on site, but rather a general feasibility study.

“Not as such, but we are certainly using it to gauge interest in first-class cricket,” Kitchen said when asked if this was a pilot for Test cricket.

“TV infrastructure is a bigger challenge than spectator capacity for Test cricket in the UAE.”

The Academy has a capacity of around 2,000 people, which was pushed to its limit most memorably when UAE hosted Nepal for a series of limited-overs fixtures earlier this year.

Even though internationals like Morkel, Stuart Broad and Rory Burns are involved, the crowd never threatened anything like that number on Day 1 of this match.

The venue seemed to review well with the majority of the hundred or so Surrey supporters that had come to watch.

With an oval that is tree-lined, and surrounded by a white-picket fence, and players wearing whites while playing with a red ball, it had the genteel feel of an English county out-ground. All it needed to cap of the look were some deck-chairs and Mister Softee ice-creams.

Some of the spectators were clearly hankering for a little bit of home, as they swapped the heat for the air-con viewing area inside, where they sipped cups of tea.

That was the best place to be when, 40 minutes in, a sandstorm blew across the ground, and settled in for much of the afternoon.

Some supporters suggested it felt a little like the sea breeze on an away day in Scarborough. Safe to assume this was a little warmer, and much dustier.

“I haven’t played in a sandstorm before – this was definitely a first,” said Conor McKerr, the young fast bowler who took three wickets as Surrey bowled MCC out for 265 on Day 1.

“For the majority of the squad, to get out of the cold and to get to the heat of Dubai is such a blessing. The fact we had a sandstorm today was not the greatest, but it was all part of it.”