Is Pakistan cricket’s long-standing relationship with the UAE coming to an end?

Pakistan cricket's long-standing relationship with the UAE is under threat over a scheduling conflict that could see the proposed Pakistan Super League staged in Qatar. Osman Samiuddin provides the report.

Cricket fans wave UAE and Pakistan flags during a match between Pakistan and Australia at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi in 2009.
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The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has turned its attentions to Qatar as a potential host for its long-gestating domestic Twenty20 league project, in a move that may well have consequences for its relationship with the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB).

The PCB has had a long-standing and healthy working relationship with the ECB, more so since March 2009, after which Pakistan has used the UAE as a surrogate home for its international commitments.

That, however, has come under some strain in recent months and though both boards are treading cautiously for fear of causing irreparable damage, implications could be widespread.

At heart, the issue is a logistical one. But in the difficulties of its resolution lies a broader picture of the futures of both Pakistan cricket and cricket in the Emirates.

The PCB has, for several years now, been trying to launch the Pakistan Super League, its own Twenty20 league, which it believes will be key to its financial standing. Twice before, in 2013 and 2014, the board has been forced to shelve their plans.

This time, however, efforts have acquired greater momentum. Within the board a separate team has emerged to realise the project. The global firm Repucom have been brought in as consultants in helping to get the league off the ground.

On June 13, the PCB made public its intentions to hold the league in the UAE next year; even in previous attempts the UAE had been kept in mind as a venue.

Ten days before the PCB’s announcement, however, a local business group launched the Masters Champions League (MCL) in Dubai, a Twenty20 league for veteran cricketers no longer active internationally.

The MCL is due to be held in February 2016, specifically between February 4th and 20th. It will be played across the three international venues in the UAE — Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah — and is approved by the ECB.

This is the root of the friction. The PCB wants to host its PSL during the same period. The international calendar is so crammed — the Asia Cup, the World Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League (IPL) are all to be played in the February-April window — that there is no room.

The PCB has been trying to convince both the MCL and ECB to come to a compromise which would allow them to stage the PSL here next year. They have not budged.

Technically, the PCB is on shaky ground. MCL and ECB officials say, and the PCB does not dispute this central point, that the MCL booked the venues for those dates back in the summer of 2014.

The MCL has been in the works for a couple of years and the ECB has been kept abreast of developments for a while: the Dubai Sports City stadium, for example, was booked as long ago as June 2014. Sharjah and Abu Dhabi were booked last October.

The ECB, moreover, say that the PCB had not even formally contacted them about staging their league here until they made the announcement on June 13. The PCB acknowledges they made no formal contact, though insist they had mentioned its prospect in April this year; even then, however, the MCL had already booked the stadiums and its planning well-advanced.

Nobody disputes the broad timelines of these developments. Instead what has left the PCB feeling slighted is their belief that both events could have been accommodated and a resolution found if only all three parties sat together to discuss it.

The PCB says it made attempts to meet the ECB in June, but was denied the opportunity. The PCB did meet MCL officials and though discussions took place to find a way around the schedule jam, they were fruitless. By this stage, the MCL claims, it had already negotiated with a number of players with those specific dates and changing them would be disastrous.

The impasse has left PCB officials refusing to rule out a recalibration of its relationship with the ECB, in terms of the smaller picture of the PSL as well as the bigger one of their “home” matches.

Their officials have already visited Doha to cast an eye over the facilities and meet the cricket association about staging the PSL there.

The PCB has hosted a women’s tournament in Doha and feedback is that though Doha is limited as far as infrastructure is concerned with only one cricket stadium there, but there is great keenness among authorities to bring over Pakistan.

Over the weekend the PCB sent a formal proposal to the Qatar Olympic Association detailing the upgrades the stadium will need. The Qatar Cricket Association is keen to leverage this opportunity to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the PCB that spills over into grass-roots development of the game in the country.

Though Pakistan are scheduled to host England in the UAE this winter, officials have begun mentioning the possibility again of using Bangladesh as a potential venue for home series, though given relations between the two boards have been spiky, that will be easier said than done.

Partly, talk of moving away from the UAE is inevitable. In May this year Pakistan hosted a series at home against Zimbabwe. They were the first full member to visit Pakistan since the terror attacks on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in March 2009, which spelt the end of international cricket in the country.

The Zimbabwe series was the first step on a still-long road to the return of international cricket to Pakistan.

It is, ironically, that very prospect which has played a part in the ECB’s stance, other than the fact that they are not keen on reneging on a contractual agreement. The ECB want to continue their relationship with the PCB but they also understand that it will not go on forever.

At some point Pakistan will return home and the ECB will need its own revenue stream. Signing a 10-year agreement with the MCL is, at least in part, a product of that recognition. Whether that ultimately comes at the cost of losing revenue from Pakistan using the UAE as a home for international matches and the PSL is, at the moment, difficult to know. But it is a decision officials stand by.

Perhaps they would have felt vindicated by the recent comments of the PCB’s own chairman, Shaharyar Khan, who cast doubt on the league’s viability in a recent interview. Though he eventually retracted and issued a supporting statement, Shaharyar has never been a resounding advocate of the league, a position that has caused friction within the board and ensured a halo of doubt and uncertainty around it.

Though the PCB has sent the proposal to Qatar, officials suggest they will wait till the end of this month before finalising the venue. Though they pursue Qatar, the PCB is uncertain whether it really is an ideal venue for the kind of league they want the PSL to be. Staging it at home, potentially without big-name foreign stars, could again be a possibility.

They claim that by the end of the month it will finally become apparent to them whether the MCL is to go ahead next year or not. The MCL says everything is coming into place. They have been running TV promos and now claim to have 250 players signed up.

Daniel Vettori and the UAE’s Khurram Khan have already been announced as signings; it is believed Andrew Symonds, Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Mike Hussey, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saqlain Mushtaq, Abdul Razzaq, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh are also in the mix.