Mubashshir Usmani, the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) boss who is rising in stature as an administrator, elevates his hand above his head in a gesture to emphasise the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) undisputed status in world cricket.
“The IPL is number one. Nothing comes close. It’s in a league of its own,” he tells me of the world’s biggest cricket league whose 10 teams, according to Forbes, have an average value of $1.04 billion.
“But we can be second. I’m not saying we will better than other leagues, who might be equal, but at the very least we will be the second best T20 league in the world.”
It’s a bold statement from Usmani considering the ECB’s T20 professional league has yet to launch, but not necessarily outlandish. With strong backing from financial titans Adani Group, headed by Gautum Adani who has a net worth of $107.6 billion according to Forbes, and IPL franchise The Knight Riders Group, which is led by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, the T20 league in the UAE
Top players are set to be offered up to $300,000, tax free, while teams will each have a salary cap of about $2 million. The six-team competition is set to launch in January 2023 with the 35-game tournament spread over 25 days. Usmani said a specific start date had yet to be confirmed, but a window from around January 20 through mid-February was earmarked.
Cricket’s cramped schedule and the UAE’s notorious summer heat – where oppressive temperatures hover past 50 degrees Celsius/122 Fahrenheit from May-August – leave precious little time in the calendar.
So January-February, where temperatures are a modest maximum of 24 degrees Celsius/75 Fahrenheit, has been deemed as the best available slot but will likely clash with the pointy end of Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL) and maybe the start of the Pakistan Super League. It will also be played concurrently with the Bangladesh Premier League.
The nascent T20 league looms as a potential obstacle for the maligned BBL, which has declined in popularity in recent seasons marked by slumping television ratings. Its supposed dearth of talent with some international stars shunning the BBL altogether due to its lengthy season, which stretches almost two months, could be further drained by the UAE’s shorter and more lucrative league.
Chris Lynn, the BBL’s all-time leading run-scorer, was recently dumped by Brisbane Heat and there is speculation he might venture to the UAE instead of looking for a new home in a tournament he long dominated.
Last season, BBL teams reportedly had a salary cap of about AUD $1.9 million (USD $1.33 million) with top players believed to earn around AUD $200,000 ($140,000), which is taxed, and well short of the deep pockets expected from its UAE counterpart.
“We don’t think we’re going to be a competitor to the BBL or other leagues,” a diplomatic Usmani insisted. “We will be working with their boards to work out when the best time is to make sure the tournaments don’t clash heavily.”
The BBL’s fixtures for next season haven’t been released yet – expected by the end of the month – but its playoffs could coincide with the start of the UAE league.
Perhaps it’s not the intention of the Emirates chiefs to poach players from rival leagues, but undoubtedly the T20 league offers an intriguing option for players, who may also opt to compete in the T10 League which last season was held from January 28-February 6.
But Usmani said next season’s T10 League will most likely be played in December to establish a regular schedule and rhythm for its two showpiece tournaments.
With high-profile players expected to be lured once rosters are formed later in the year, Usmani expected the fledgling T20 league to showcase top talent from the Associate world and also players from Full Members who perform well in their domestic leagues but are unable to nab lucrative IPL contracts.
It’s a concept that has already been embraced by heavy hitters. “We have been expanding the Knight Riders brand globally and closely watching the potential for T20 cricket in the UAE,” said Shah Rukh Khan. “We are excited about becoming part of UAE’s T20 League, which no doubt will become hugely successful.”
“It wasn’t hard to convince investors to join the league with the UAE becoming a hub for international cricket,” said Usmani whose office in Dubai’s Sports City is just metres from the International Cricket Council’s headquarters.
“It is very exciting to be close to starting the T20 league, which will be our showpiece event and we expect it to be a big thing in world cricket.”