The UAE has been host to some epic Test matches since Pakistan began playing here regularly in 2010, with the recently concluded Test series with Sri Lanka providing another example. Yet in every Test in the UAE, we hear commentators, journalists and fans around the world lament the mournful emptiness in the stands. People are losing interest in Test cricket, which is struggling to compete with forms of entertainment shorter in duration, and definitely less exhausting – that much is a fact. This is especially the case in the UAE, where you can’t expect home ground crowds (Pakistanis constitute roughly 12.5% of total population), and also where the societal structure is based on a hard work life, and people have far superior and easier forms of entertainment. Add to that the extremely hot and humid climate, and it all means that generating Test crowds in UAE is a big challenge.
low crowd turnout is a common sight in UAE
However, I feel the PCB isn’t doing enough to improve Test crowds; in fact it is pushing Test cricket spectators further away. There are multiple aspects that I want to explore where things are lacking and/or could be improved.
Pakistan isn’t the only cricket nation represented in the UAE, and if more efforts are made on marketing cricket in UAE, other cricket watching nations will come and watch. In addition, there’s often a lack of easy access to information on availability and pricing of tickets. Given that the majority of potential spectators are not tech savvy (the Pakistani diaspora here is largely working-class), there needs to be better communication on where and how tickets can be bought. A few tweets from PCB’s official account for the only international cricket series this year in the UAE simply isn’t good enough.
“A few tweets from PCB’s official account for the only international cricket series this year in the UAE simply isn’t good enough.”
The PCB has previously admitted before that the UAE is not their marketing focus, but even with that disclaimer, there are opportunities for inviting educational institutions to bring students to the ground, specially Pakistani institutions. With students especially, there is a case for not only developing new fans for Pakistan cricket, but interest in cricket as a sport in the UAE as well, and in that, working with the Emirates Cricket Board towards that end should not be an issue. Establishing transport for the labour workforce from their places of accommodation is another low cost option.
The ticket pricing for Tests gives off an impression of an arrogant has-been movie star woefully out of sync with the present, still demanding top billing. Tickets in Abu Dhabi were priced at AED 25 and AED 50, and in Dubai at AED 30, AED 50, and AED 100.
With daily crowds struggling to number 500, PCB can choose to declare free entry for all except certain premium stands (e.g. the grass mounds in Abu Dhabi should always be free), or at least free entry for kids under 12 to encourage family attendance. In addition, there is absolutely no incentive for a spectator to attend more than one day of Test cricket; no concept of a weekend package or even reduced-price multi-day tickets, which is disappointing given the grand financial landscape in which cricket operates now.
The Test venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are far away from the main city and travelling to these venues can be costly. The food and drinks available at the venues are overpriced - an Indian spectator during the Dubai Test compared it to a cinema’s pricing. Add all that, and a day of Test cricket with a decent view in the stands can easily cost more than a 100 AED.
For a large section of the target market, this can easily amount to more than day’s wages. The average cost of going to the cinema is 50 - 60 AED, a product for which a high demand market already exists.
“Dost Muhammad, works as a foreman in Abu Dhabi. He drove all the way to Dubai on a Friday (his only day off) to watch the recent day night Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and did not buy even a single glass of water during the whole day. A 250 ml glass of water is priced at AED 5. His is just one story, among the thousands for whom cricket is the only relief from a hard grind; yet their presence is not encouraged or facilitated at the matches.”
The logistics of buying a ticket and getting to the stands can be a nightmare. The entrances and routes to the Abu Dhabi stadium are not marked, with the main entrances closed off entirely. Often, people coming in taxis can get off at the wrong junction and have to walk a considerable distance from there. The ticket booth in Abu Dhabi is in the middle of a sandy location, at least 500 meters away from the stadium.
Zoomed View of the Ticket Booth from the road in front of Sheikh Zayed Stadium
Despite no shortage of empty spaces right next to the Dubai stadium, the ticket booth is built nearly a kilometer-long walk from the stands, with no markings for the booth’s location except a sign on the booth itself. I recently met an Australian couple in their sixties, who had gotten off near the stadium, were then directed by security to walk to the ticket booth, and then had to walk back to the stadium again.
View of the Dubai Stadium from the Ticket Booth
The ticket booths simply distribute printed tickets. There’s no digital network; electronic forms of payment aren’t accepted; and in the early hours, the booths often do not have available change for bills as low as AED 100. Which makes it all the more bewildering why these booths cannot be moved right next to the stadium!
Once you get to the security checkpoints, you are required to go through maddeningly elongated routes to reach the stands. And of course, car parking near the stadium is charged; free parking is further away from the ticket booth. The arrangements are the same as for the PSL – no difference in logistics for expected crowds of fifteen to twenty thousand versus Test crowds numbering well under a thousand. In the UAE heat, all of this exhausts you even before you’ve seen a single cricket ball. Privately, you are already reevaluating your choices.
The rigidity of these logistical and pricing policies despite empty stadiums indicate no real significance of ticket revenue. Yet the administration seems okay with empty stands. A near full house in Abu Dhabi cheering Younis Khan’s double hundred against Australia in 2014 is a distant memory. As the stands began overflowing with people, I was there to witness the incredible singularity of a heaving stadium. Younis Khan said as much that he drew energy from the crowds. Entry for that Test, except for a small southern premium stand, was free.
With stars like Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Saeed Ajmal gone, it’s an even bigger challenge to attract Test crowds in UAE. Lack of financial incentive goes a long way in explaining such apathy to the plight of Test spectators, as administrations globally, sing to the tune of broadcaster deals. Test spectators, an increasingly at risk breed creeping towards extinction, deserve better. The cricketers racking up achievements after achievements in empty grounds, deserve better.