In the summer of 2003, Hampshire Hawks and Sussex Sharks played a local derby in what was the first fixture in the new Twenty20 Cup.
No-one knew quite what to expect from a competition designed to win back supporters to the county game in the UK. It was a hit and giggle in the middle, with some organised fun beyond the boundary, all for entertainment’s sake.
Game strategy barely amounted to much more than calling on the overseas player as soon as possible, and seeing if he could win the game. It meant Wasim Akram batted at No 3 for Hampshire. He hit 10 from eight balls, including one six, as Hampshire made 153, then dismissed Matt Prior and Murray Goodwin in successive balls, to go a long way to achieving his brief.
A little over 14 years later, Wasim will be on the scene again as a new concept is tried, in the form of the T10 League at Sharjah Cricket Stadium. It seems apt. He starred so often for Pakistan when Sharjah enjoyed its one-day international heyday. He was there at the very start of T20. Now he is back again for cricket’s first organised foray into 10-over cricket.
“Imagine if I would have been in this era?” said Wasim, who is the coach and team mentor of Maratha Arabians in the T10 League. “Three hours of cricket in T20, or 90 minutes in T10, then you could go back home and chill.”
The creators of the new league aim to pare down cricket even further than T20 already has, fitting it into a 90-minute time-frame similar to other major sports like football.
“In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, people have time and they can watch all day,” Wasim said. “Here, they don’t. That is why an hour and a half, especially for youngsters, is good.
“What I would like to see is kids playing in the nets outside, with tennis balls, so they can come and watch, and play cricket as well. Cricket is big in this part of the world.”
That is what the tournament’s organisers are banking on: the appeal of the game to the UAE’s large expatriate workforce, whose leisure time is at a premium.
Shaji Ul Mulk, the creator of the T10 League, says he first had the idea when watching Brazil playing in the 2016 World Cup.
“Looking at the intensity of the players involved, and also the intensity of the supporters watching the games, that is where the idea stemmed from,” Ul Mulk said.
“I thought that if cricket could come to that same time period, it could open cricket to new markets in the world, and make it faster.” Originally from India, Ul Mulk moved to Dubai aged 20, and earned a name for himself in A Division cricket as a prolific wicket-taking offspinner. He might have played in cricket’s World Cup in 1996, had his business career not limited the time he could devote to what was, and still largely remains, an amateur pursuit in the UAE.
After he finished playing, he continued his involvement in the sport as a generous benefactor of UAE cricket, and has regularly brought Pakistan Test players to play domestic cricket in the country. The T10 League, though, is his biggest undertaking in the sport to date.
The league has six teams, with matches from Thursday to Sunday. Although each will be 90 minutes long, the days are no shorter than cricket’s longest form. There are four matches on each of Friday and Saturday, which equates to seven-and-a-half hour days.
The organisers have tried to appeal to the South Asia population by having two franchises nominally representing parts of India (Kerala Kings and Maratha Arabians), Pakistan (Pakhtoons and Punjabi Legends), Bangladesh (Bengal Tigers) and Team Sri Lanka Cricket.
Few could have foreseen quite the direction T20 would take from that first evening at the Rose Bowl in 2003. T10’s brains trust has a vision for the future, however; has a plan marked out for its development.
It is a bold one. They have a 10-year agreement to stage matches at grounds in the UAE. They want to have similar events abroad, starting in Pakistan and perhaps even the United States. They expect internationals between established nations to be played in the format in the near future. They even believe T10 could aid any potential bid cricket might want to make for Olympic inclusion, a view already voiced by the England limited-overs captain, Eoin Morgan, among others.
Salman Iqbal, the T10 League president, who also owns the Karachi Kings PSL franchise, believes 10-over cricket will have a broad appeal because it is similar to the type of cricket played by many.
“Ninety per cent of great Pakistan cricketers – Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Javed Miandad – all these guys have played street cricket,” Iqbal said.
“In street cricket, you play 10 overs. This is how cricketers are born in Pakistan and India. What we have done is move the board 180 degrees. They are going to play the same sort of cricket, in front of thousands of people, and with the whole world watching – for 10 overs. They are going back to the street.
“Secondly, the younger generation don’t have the time. Why is football so popular? Why is basketball so popular? It is because it’s 90 minutes. Thanks to all the digital content flying around the world, our attention spans are getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
“Ninety minutes could work perfectly. If the boards like it, they could take it to the Asian Games, then the Olympics. That would change the whole cricket world.”
Iqbal admitted the players needed persuading to sign up to the new league. Many, he said, were put off by the last private cricket venture to be staged in the UAE, the ill-fated Masters Champions League.
There are certain similarities. Many of the players initially announced as being involved in T10 – Shahid Afridi, Virender Sehwag, Misbah-ul-Haq – were recently retired, which had been the premise of the MCL when it launched amid much fanfare in 2015. Sehwag is even due to play for a team called the Arabians – Maratha this time – having won the MCL with Gemini.
Neither has T10 been without teething issues. Initially, it was due to be staged from December 21 to Christmas Eve. It was shifted a week earlier to accommodate leading players from Pakistan. Then the T10 Cricket League, as it was initially called, lost the term “Cricket” because of a copyright clash.
Perhaps most pointedly of all, there were a number of player withdrawals. Kumar Sangakkara’s face still adorns a number of promotional billboards, even though he pulled out of playing, citing personal reasons. Dwayne Bravo was announced as his replacement for Maratha.
The Maratha franchise reported few other problems, but Bengal Tigers were not so lucky. Six of their original 15-man squad have been unable to fulfill the commitment to play, including Sunil Narine and Mustafizur Rahman, the franchise’s first two draft picks.
Both Iqbal and Ul Mulk, though, have provided guarantees the T10 League will not go the same way as MCL.
“With Mulk Holdings and [Iqbal’s] ARY Group, we have two strong business houses, we have given a total guarantee that it will be different this time,” Ul Mulk said. “We have taken the guarantee that all the players and everybody else will be paid by us.”
One feature of the new league is the exposure it will provide UAE players. Even though both IPL and PSL have been played in the Emirates in the past, local players only ever had a watching brief. They have long craved admission to the major T20 leagues around the world. Whenever they have made the draft list for the Pakistan Super League, though, they have been left on the shelf.
In the past, Saqib Ali, a former UAE batsman, won a Bangladesh Premier League deal, but did not make it there, on account of visa issues. More recently, Chirag Suri, a young, Dubai-raised batsman, landed an Indian Premier League contract for the 2017 season, but did not play a match for Gujarat Lions.
Two places in each of the T10 League franchises – other than Team Sri Lanka Cricket – were reserved for UAE players, with a guarantee that at least one will be in the starting XI. The opportunity to rub shoulders with the gilded stars of elsewhere has been gratefully received by the locally-based players – as has the financial kick.
The UAE players will be getting $10,000 for four day’s work. That works out at a far better daily rate – around 10 times better – than Suri managed for his IPL jaunt.
Not only do they appreciate the windfall, the UAE players are happy with the playing opportunity they are getting. Mohammed Naveed, a former tape-ball player who is ranked No 12 for T20 international bowlers, wants to use the competition as a shop window which will help him access other T20 leagues. Rohan Mustafa, the UAE captain, can’t wait to play alongside “my all-time favourite batsman” Eoin Morgan, who is his captain at Kerala Kings.
“The whole league is designed to be a UAE property,” Ul Mulk said. “That was the whole point of having the competition here, apart from the fact we wanted to create something special, the first time a T10 league had been played.
“It feels like giving back to UAE cricket, and that is why we made sure the players would be involved. We are sure it will only help improve cricket here.”