Pakistan v England: Making history in Dubai & Abu Dhabi

By Ian Shoesmith & Jimmy SmallwoodBBC Sport
Virtually empty DSC Stadium in Dubai
The second Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Dubai, October 2011

After 125 years and 915 matches, England will play a Test series on neutral soil for the first time later this month when they travel to the United Arab Emirates to take on Pakistan.

They are heading there because Pakistan have played all their matches overseas since gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore in 2009.

But while shiny new stadiums may await Andrew Strauss in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, will anybody be there to watch them in a part of the world hardly associated with being a hotbed of cricket?

Barmy Army co-founder Paul Burnham admits: "You don't feel the passion for the game there."

And BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew said: "I think the attendances for the series will be very poor, but it may work in England's favour that they can get to grips with the conditions in the relatively sedate surroundings of Dubai and Abu Dhabi before they have to deal with the big crowds and feverish atmosphere of India [next winter].

"I think the cricket will be good because Pakistan have improved and England will be very keen. I hope some Brits go over and watch it. It's a great place to travel to for a nice bit of winter sunshine and there will be no problem getting in. There will be plenty of tickets."

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison, given the huge appeal of Ashes tours down under, but by way of illustration more than 5,000 of the many thousands of England fans who went to Australia last winter went as part of the official Barmy Army party.

For the upcoming Pakistan series? "More than 500 have booked up," says Burnham. "But quite a few people will head out there independently. There is such a huge ex-pat population out there and a lot of people will stay with friends who are living there.

"I certainly don't think the stadiums will be empty, and you've got to remember that many Test matches are poorly attended around the world [in countries where the game is more established]."

January's visit will not be England's first to the region, having played Pakistan in Dubai in two Twenty20 internationals in February 2010 as part of their preparations for the World Twenty20.

Burnham thinks the novelty value of the three-Test series will tempt some England fans into making the trip because "a lot of our guys like to tick the boxes when it comes to visiting all the grounds". And the climate - with average temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius - will be an attractive alternative to shivering through the British winter.

Chand Patel, a 36-year-old banker from London, has just returned from visiting friends in Dubai.

He spoke to Pakistani ex-pats, and said there seems lukewarm interest in attending the series.

"Most said they couldn't afford to either take the day off work, or the price of the tickets. It sounds like it will be the Barmy Army and a bunch of UK ex-pats attending," he said.

What kind of experience will those travelling supporters be in for?

"The facilities are great," said Burnham. "Fans are definitely able to drink in Dubai - there is a bar in one of the stands where you are allowed. I don't think you can drink in [the] Abu Dhabi [stadium] but contrary to popular myth, drinking is not the 'be all and end all' for the Barmy Army!

"I am certainly going to do two out of the three Tests at least, and am really looking forward to it."

From a player's perspective the facilities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are excellent, and England's touring party should have little problem acclimatising.

has played pre-season games in the UAE in each of the last three seasons.

"The practice facilities are good, the changing rooms are nice, most of the things out there are of a very high standard, and everything England need is there for them," Malan told BBC Sport.

However, what kind of an experience is it for a touring cricketer off the field?

"The Abu Dhabi stadium is smack bang in the middle of the desert," Malan explains. "There are a lot of good golf courses out there to help the England players relax, and a few shopping centres.

"They will find things to do to get away from cricket and from the hotel."

Golf and shopping will also be on offer to England supporters as distractions or an alternative to the cricket. The question remains - how many cricket fans out in the United Arab Emirates will witness the Test series and the subsequent Twenty20 and one-day internationals?

Brian Murgatroyd is a spokesperson for Dubai Sports City, the venue that will stage the first Test match on 17 January. He says the reason ticket sales have be lower than many might expect is simply down to a different attitude towards attending live sporting events.

"The culture here tends not to be to buy tickets long in advance, in contrast to the UK," he explained.

"The fact that the stadium holds 25,000 spectators means fans know they can walk up and buy on the day for the Test matches without any concern about missing out."

The United Arab Emirates is a hard-working environment, according to Murgatroyd. The tendency is to work a six-day week, with Friday prayers dominating the one day away from the office. As such, it is a market geared towards an evening's enjoyment of Twenty20 rather than five days' Test cricket.

"Fans will ensure there is a very lively atmosphere in the venue for the Fridays of Tests played during the series," insists Murgatroyd.

"The ODIs and T20s are a different case and we expect good crowds at those matches. The atmosphere then will be fantastic.

"Tests are unlikely to be full to overflowing but that does not mean there is no interest in the matches; quite the opposite. Cricket is the main sport with many English and Urdu newspapers here in the UAE, and people will be following the matches on television, radio and the internet."

Supporters making the trip will be taking a step into the unknown so nobody can be sure exactly what conditions or atmosphere await the fans of the best Test team in the world.

For those of us following the historic series back home, we will have to resort to mimicking the UAE model: television, and the internet.

Test Match Special will have ball-by-ball commentary on all of England's Test, one-day and Twenty20 internationals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, available on BBC 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio 4 Long Wave and via the BBC Sport website (for UK users only). The BBC Sport website also offers live text commentary on all games.

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