Sponsorship deal to spread love of cricket among Emiratis

The announcement would have a serious impact on progressing what has primarily been an expatriate game

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Emirati cricket has been given a boost with a new “landmark” sponsorship deal tipped to advance the game amongst locals, who currently represent a tiny proportion of the country’s players.

Just days away from Saturday’s inaugural Cricket World Cup 2015 matches, heavyweights of the UAE and international cricket world announced the Emirates Cricket Board’s (ECB) partnership with Al Ain water at a press conference on Feb. 12, though they refused to disclose how much the deal was worth.

International Cricket Council (ICC) Head of Global Development Tim Anderson said the announcement would have a serious impact on progressing what has primarily been an expatriate game.

“[This] is a landmark partnership between a serious local company in the UAE and the Emirates Cricket Board to develop not just Emirati local talent but cricketers from all over the country.”

With the backdrop of the Cricket World Cup, Anderson said the move signaled the intention of all involved to see the status of cricket achieve higher prominence in the future.

“When a national team qualifies for a World Cup, ‘short-termism’ often happens, there’s a big focus on the event, the players, the preparation….but [this deal shows the intention] to focus on sustainability and the long term.”

The UAE team - that will make its second ever appearance at this year’s World Cup - is widely regarded as the tournament underdog. But Anderson described them as “the best UAE team to ever leave these shores.” But only two members of the team are Emirati.

That is something the ECB and Al Ain’s Abu Dhabi-based parent company Agthia are hoping to change.

ECB chief executive David East said producing more local cricketing talent was key to cricket’s longevity in the country.

“For me, indigenous development in cricket is absolutely crucial. We have a national side in New Zealand at the moment which has achieved amazing things…we need to make sure the next generation that goes to the Cricket World Cup has been nurtured through projects like the ones we’re embarking on with Al Ain.”

The deal will provide revenue to introduce nationwide under-17 and under-19 T20 tournaments, to spread cricketing awareness and programs through schools, and crucially allow for the hire of an Arabic-speaker on the coaching staff.

“Clearly we need to be communicating in Arabic so…through this partnership we have some resources now, so we’ll be looking to get an Arabic speaker to work with [us].”

The deal with Al Ain was a “trigger” to evolve the game in the UAE and see it proliferate amongst local youngsters, he said.

“[There is] indigenous talent that we undoubtedly have here but it needs nurturing and clear direction.”

Agthia consumer business division executive vice president Fasahat Beg said the company had decided to get on board because the deal fitted with their long-standing support of healthy lifestyles, of which sport was a central part. The company has sponsored a number of local football teams.

“In a region where we have a high prevalence of heart disease and diabetes, we as a company feel it’s our duty to encourage things like a healthy lifestyle and sport in particular.

“Given the prevalence of some of the health issues among the young Emirati community - diabetes, obesity - if the ECB can piggyback off our [relationships] and vice versa…it’s a great relationship to take forward.”

The company, which is 51 percent owned by the Abu Dhabi government, had seen how a sport like rugby had developed and been taken up with enthusiasm by Emiratis, he said.

“This framework of success…we want to carry through into cricket. We feel there’s a certain responsibility…to support national teams and we will look to further enhance that in the future.”

Anderson also noted that while developing homegrown talent was “obviously critical” it would also lead the government to take notice and financially aid the sport that has typically been played by workers from the subcontinent thus far.

“To take away the participation part, getting local people involved in the sport is important for getting government support. Also you want to access 100 percent of your population…and you want to have a national team that is reflective of your population.”

ECB member Khalid Al Zarooni, an Emirati, said the reason few locals had engaged in playing cricket was “a cultural thing, probably.”

“The game has not been introduced to Emiratis since the beginning from grassroots. When I was a kid I didn’t have an opportunity to play cricket. But living in the UAE now, we are growing in different environments, schools are more mixed with different cultural backgrounds and nationalities. The blending of the next generation is coming.”

Young people would share their passions and hobbies with each other and with the right infrastructure, Emiratis would also take to the game, he said.

“All of us here are trying to create that opportunity in the future to make it easier for the next generation to understand the game and to participate in a more active way. It’s a long term process…but if you do it right, you will get there.”