"Build it and the people will come"

“They will come to Iowa for reasons you can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up on your driveway, not even sure why they’re doing it, they’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past…”

The line is delivered by James Earl Jones to Kevin Costner in the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’ based loosely around the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and a corn farmer’s dream of building a baseball venue on his land in the ‘middle of nowhere.’

There was a great deal more than hope behind the construction of the Sharjah Cricket Stadium which was opened in 1984 – there was a business plan - and the stadium still holds the record for the most ODIs ever staged at a single venue, over 200 in its first 20 years. The majority of triangular and quadrangular series were staged ostensibly for the Cricketers Benefit Fund which provided an unofficial pension for retired players from Pakistan and India.

But by 2003 the attentions of the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit had cast serious doubt about whether it was actually bookmakers and gamblers who were benefiting rather more than retired players and the BCCI declared that India would no longer play there.

A year later, in 2004, the Emir of Abu Dhabi opened the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium and most international cricket followers assumed it was a glorious but mostly pointless vanity project. There are plenty of them around in the UAE. Who would play there, and how often?

The ICC closed its offices in London and Monaco in 2005 and relocated to Dubai but having the game’s global administrators based in the Emirate didn’t necessarily mean that cricketers would be traveling to play there. Nonetheless the Dubai International Cricket Stadium was built and opened in 2010, two years after the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore which brought an end to international cricket in Pakistan. The UAE had its first full-time client.

Since then, they’ve just kept coming. The Pakistan Super League. The Afghan Premier League. Afghanistan. Numerous English County Championship teams on pre-season tours followed by half of the IPL during Indian elections when security was too tightly stretched at home to guarantee the safety of voters and high profile cricketers. And then came the pandemic and the steady trickle has turned into a flood.

The IPL announced that the remaining 31 matches in the 2021 tournament would conclude in the UAE between September 20 and October 12. The logistics are mind-boggling. India’s fifth Test against England at Old Trafford finishes on September 14th. A charter plane will take the IPL players on a ‘bubble-to-bubble’ transfer from Manchester to Dubai. The dozen Englishmen with IPL contracts will not be onboard – England have short tours to Bangladesh and Pakistan scheduled. I suspect that may change.

The Caribbean Premier League, in which more than a dozen IPL stars will feature, finishes on September 19th, a day before the IPL is due to resume. The IPL is “in discussions” to see if the CPL dates can be changed. The CPL is not keen.

The first game of the T20 World Cup is scheduled for October 20th, seven days after the IPL’s new final. The BCCI has asked the ICC for more time to decide whether the World Cup can be safely staged in India – or be re-arranged in the UAE. That involves 16 international teams and around 400 players and support staff.

South Africa’s scheduled three-match ODI series against India in September is just one of many casualties. India were also due to play a two-Test series against New Zealand, which has also gone by the wayside. Afghanistan and Pakistan are due to play a three-match ODI series in Abu Dhabi in September which may have to be cancelled given the extreme stress on playing facilities.

Pakistan and New Zealand are also due to play three ODIs and three T20Is in the UAE during the September-October window while Afghanistan and Ireland had three T20Is scheduled in the same period.

If the T20 World Cup is re-scheduled for the UAE, the ICC has said it will need control of the three stadiums by October 1. While the IPL would need complete control of at least one of the stadia for another 10 days after that to complete their tournament.

The world’s international cricket schedule has become a spectacular cluster-bomb. There is an inescapable feeling that the IPL and the BCCI have their collective hands clasped over an enormous hand-grenade with the pin removed. When the IPL goes ahead, many other nations and their players will suffer. But if it did not go ahead, they would also suffer, such is the magnitude of the tournament and the effect it has on the global game.

But there is always money to be made in a war and there is no doubt the world is at war with Covid-19. How we smiled at the grand folly of 25,000-seater cricket stadia in Dubai and Abu Dhabi 15 years ago. But look who’s smiling and rubbing their hands together now.

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