The new home of world cricket

Out of the desert will soon rise an HQ, an academy and a 25,000-seat arena
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The Independent Online

In the searing desert 10 miles out of Dubai City stood a cardboard signpost kept in place by a pile of rocks. Half a mile further on loomed a speck of white on the horizon, to which the signpost was pointing. There was nothing else to point to.

In the searing desert 10 miles out of Dubai City stood a cardboard signpost kept in place by a pile of rocks. Half a mile further on loomed a speck of white on the horizon, to which the signpost was pointing. There was nothing else to point to.

It was a tent, an ornate tent for sure, but a tent. It was surrounded by acres of sand and intermittent, parched wild grasses for as far as the eye could see. A mechanical digger stood to one side.

This, then, was the headquarters of the International Cricket Council. Well, not quite yet, but on this very spot within two years. It was difficult to take in for a host of reasons: venue, history, tradition, logic. For a moment it was natural to wonder if the shepherds playing in the shadow of the Sussex Downs 300 years ago speculated that it would come to this.

The ICC announced late last year that they were moving their offices from Lord's to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. They had been lured partly by tax advantages, partly by location and partly by the sheer scale of what was on offer. Dubai might not be the epicentre of cricket (yet, you should start thinking) but it is already more central in geographical terms to where cricket is played than Lord's.

The bizarre reality of it began to emerge last week. The ICC are building their new HQ in a vast tract of arid wasteland where Bedouin roamed not long ago, and have been given the land on which it will stand. Nearby will be the Global Cricket Academy, which will house everything a cricketer could ever need: abundant nets, treatment rooms, indoor schools and two outdoor grounds.

The centrepiece will be a 25,000-seater cricket arena. Nobody is willing to commit to what cricket will be played there, but it will be big-time. All this will be part of Dubai Sports City, a breathtaking project both in scale (more than 2,000 acres) and cost (over £1 billion). It will comprise the Manchester United Football Academy, the Butch Harmon Golf School and a course designed by Ernie Els, and a David Lloyd Tennis Academy as well as the cricket development.

The arrival of the ICC is undoubtedly the feather in the ghutra. There is a large and increasing Asian (not to mention British, South African and Australian) population in Dubai. Cricket might be much less a part of the nation's heritage than falconry, but it has swiftly become part of the culture.

The chief executive of Dubai Sports City, U Balasubramaniam, is an old-school charmer whose smile and persuasive patter could ensnare the most sceptical. "Dubai is a place that can deliver on its promises. The ICC is the first sporting governing body to come here but it may not be the last. We could see a home for the International Rugby Board here, for instance. And if the International Olympic Committee ever felt the need to change we would be glad to talk."

In some ways it might not seem to matter where the ICC are based. The playing of the game can be administered from anywhere. Dubai, however, offers an unparalleled opportunity. "This is a perfect scenario for cricket," Bob Merriman, the chairman of Cricket Australia, said at the desert ground-breaking ceremony last week. "Its position is just right. For us at the end of the world it's only a 14-hour flight instead of 21, the facilities will be matchless and the money saved made it overwhelming."

The ICC estimate that the game will have at least an extra $2m (£1.1bn) a year at its disposal, but it could easily be much more. It continues to niggle that cricket is taking its bat to a place where the game had no place 15 years ago. But then not much else had a place 15 years ago in Dubai, which is now a sea of high-rises.

Sports City is ambitious even by their standards, but the bulk of it will be up and running by the time Wembley is complete. The UAE's previous link with big-time cricket was at Sharjah, the next-door Emirate which staged four Test matches involving Pakistan in 2002 when Pakistan was deemed unsafe, and a world-record 198 one-day internationals.

The other day the Sharjah ground had chickens on the square. It had departed the international fold under a cloud. Nobody is sure how many of the matches there were rigged. It was the existence of the Sharjah stadium and another at Abu Dhabi that persuaded three of the UAE's leading entrepreneurs that Dubai should have its own ground.

One of them, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the driving force behind Sharjah, reminded his audience at the ground-breaking ceremony: "The UAE has, per capita, the highest income in the world, the greatest number of cars, the most mobile-phone users and the most cricket clubs."

From the idea of one cricket ground, the Sports City and the presence of the ICC evolved. The finances are complex, but the houses on half of the set-aside desert will offset some of the cost. The ICC will pay for and own their HQ building, but not the academy. They will move in August, first to temporary accommodation.

It is certain that they did not decide to leave Lord's without much soul-searching. The MCC wanted to keep them and, as Merriman observed, cricket would have been daft to throw 200 years of tradition away. But the Government never acceded to the tax breaks, and to demonstrate how keen they were, the request for latitude never reached the desk of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Malcolm Speed, the ICC's chief executive, pointed out: "Five years ago it was as if countries were prepared to put up with having sporting organisations. Now they're out there seeking them, because they create meetings, events, profile and are good for a country's development." Not in England, it seems.

Dubai is full steam ahead. The next question now is when the UAE will have its own Test team.

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