IPL returns to its home away from home

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Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan at the opening match MI vs KKR at Sheikh Zayed International Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi, in 2014. - KT file photo
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan at the opening match MI vs KKR at Sheikh Zayed International Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi, in 2014. - KT file photo

Published: Fri 18 Sep 2020, 11:09 AM

Last updated: Sun 20 Sep 2020, 1:12 PM

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Chairman of the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) and the Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, having a chat with Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, remains one of the most endearing images when the defending champions Mumbai Indians squared off against the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014.

The Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi was packed to the rafters and Sheikh Nahyan, then the Minister for Culture, Youth and Community Development, watched the proceedings with keen interest.

At the fag end of the first leg, Sheikh Nahyan went on to quote Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest cricketer of all-time. 'May cricket continue to flourish and spread its wings. The world can only be richer for it.'

When the UAE got the opportunity to host the first phase of the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) that year because of the elections in India, Sheikh Nahyan, an avid follower of the game, also had a dream.

Sheikh Nahyan had remarked during the opening ceremony, which was restricted to a gala dinner at the opulent Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi: "The IPL is welcome to begin every season, not just this seventh season, in our splendid stadiums in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. The UAE is eagerly anticipating the first matches of IPL 2014 and we are hoping for more matches beyond," he had added.

Six years on, Sheikh Nahyan's wish has come true.

Unlike then, when the UAE played host to the first 20 fixtures, the country will host the tournament in its entirety - 56 matches as well as the knockout phase and the final.

It is not the most ideal of circumstances for fans in India but the UAE's admirable way of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had to look no further than the UAE to become the IPL's 'home' away from home.

Back in 2014, Abu Dhabi, the Dubai International Cricket Stadium and the historic Sharjah Cricket Stadium, hosted seven, seven, and six matches, respectively and the popular franchise league got a resounding response.

With the UAE home to a large Indian diaspora, thousands came through the turnstiles at each of the three venues and it was estimated that close to 300,000 fans witnessed the 20 matches.

The atmosphere was electric with fans rooting for their teams, be it the Mumbai Indians, the Chennai Super Kings, the Kolkata Knight Riders, Rajasthan Royals, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kings XI Punjab, Sunrisers Hyderabad and the Delhi Daredevils (now the Delhi Capitals),

The crowd was such that one would have mistaken it to be any cricket ground in India - the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru or the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi.

A sizable media contingent too had flown in to cover the tournament.

And the crowd were treated to a feast with some cracking contests across the three venues. But the one that comes to mind is the thrilling tied game between the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Rajasthan Royals in the UAE capital. The Super Over too ended tied and the Royals won the match on boundary count.

While that year witnessed the IPL in all its pomp and glory, this season will feel a bit surreal. The IPL will be played in a bio-bubble, and one of the most important ingredients of the game will be missing - the fans.

There is a glimmer of hope though that fans could be allowed over the course of the tournament, with appropriate social distancing and keeping the health and safety protocols in mind. But for now though, teams will battle it out in empty stadiums.

Nonetheless, you can still get your cricket fix on TV.

- james@khaleejtimes.com

By James Jose

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