Given the combination of nuclear batting and rampant commerce, watching the first T10 League felt a little like tuning in to the shopping channel to watch a home-run derby. Dot balls were sponsored. Sixes and fours were so passe, they were grouped together by another advertiser under the prosaic heading of Sapil Solid Shots. There were stilt-walkers, acrobats, and dancers in zorbs. Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf came along to watch. Shahid Afridi took a hat-trick with the first three balls he bowled. A 16-year-old from Afghanistan got the England limited-overs captain out. And a street-cricketer from the UAE broke Afridi’s middle-stump into two pieces. What was not to like about the first 10-over cricket tournament in professional cricket?
1. “Full house, thank you Sharjah fans”
‘Build it, and they will come,’ might as well be a UAE mantra. It was how the Sharjah Cricket Stadium came into being in the first place. But one of the myriad unknowables ahead of this tournament was, of course, would anyone actually turn up to watch?
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Surely 10-overs is too short and too daft? Double-headers are often a tough sell, so how could they realistically expect people to sit through four matches in a row, with the late games finishing at 1 am? And why would anyone feel an affinity to any of the six artificial constructs they were supposed to be coming to support?
Unfounded fears, it turns out. Around 12,600 spectators went through the turnstiles on the first day, a Thursday evening, so not far off the 15,200 capacity. On Friday it was a sell-out, and the same was the case on Sunday’s finals night, which is basically unheard of on a work night in the UAE. As proof of concepts go, it was quite the endorsement.
2. The Great Khali
Among the many sponsors of the T10 League was OK! Pakistan and the broadcasts sometimes felt as much like flicking through the pages of a glossy magazine as they did watching a cricket competition. The franchises flew in a range of celebrities to support their teams. Among them was perhaps the biggest star ever to attend a cricket match. Dalip Singh Rana is not exactly a household name. Even by his stage name, The Great Khali, he is a bit niche. And yet they don’t come much bigger than the 7ft 1in, 157 kg former WWE wrestler and one-time Hollywood actor. The people who had tickets in the “Celebrity Stand” had to pay Dh500 (approx $135) for the privilege, which was the top price for admission. Those who sat behind him might have been disappointed to get restricted-view seats.
3. First round hat-tricks
When the Pakistan Super League launched in Dubai in 2016, it was given immediate impetus when Mohammed Amir took a hat-trick on the opening weekend for Karachi Kings. For Amir and the PSL, read Afridi in T10.
This tournament might as well have been invented for Afridi, right down to the fact he wears number 10 on the back of his shirt. Somehow, given the complete lack of merchandise stores, the streets surrounding Sharjah Stadium ahead of the first game were awash with thousands of people wearing yellow replica Pakhtoon shirts with his name and number. He did not disappoint and neither were his hat-trick victims any old players. Rilee Rossouw, who ended the tournament with the best strike-rate of any of the leading run-scorers, went first. Then Dwayne Bravo. And then Virender Sehwag, just for good measure.
4. Mujeeb trumps Morgan
Sehwag hadn’t played since the Masters Champions League in the UAE nearly two years earlier. He looked rusty at best. After his golden duck against Afridi, he did not bat at in the next game, and then the nominal captain of Maratha Arabians sat the rest of the tournament out with a bad back.
It was not a wholly wasted trip for him, though. The Kings XI Punjab mentor left saying he had spotted a few potential bargains for the next IPL auction. He said some little known players from UAE and Afghanistan had caught his eye. Maybe the one who furthered his case for recognition the most was Mujeeb Zadran, the 16-year-old mystery spinner from Afghanistan. Mujeeb, who was a late recruit for Bengal Tigers the week before the tournament, outfoxed Eoin Morgan with what appeared to be a variation of a carrom ball.
5. Last-over finishes
T20 cricket was ushered in 14 years ago with the idea of maximising the prospects of having a nail-biting, last-over finish. Logic suggests that the shorter the format, the more likely that is to happen. And yet they were surprisingly infrequent. The T10 League took till the fourth match for a tense, final-over finish, when Rossouw took Maratha Arabians to a win with a last-ball six.
Even when a brief rain-shower reduced the Kerala Kings run chase on Saturday against Team Sri Lanka Cricket to eight overs on DLS, they still won with nearly two to spare. Kieron Pollard smacked 40 not out in 12 balls to chase a revised target of 92. The same went in the final. Punjabi Legends might have hoped their 120 for 3 might at least challenge Kerala Kings. Not so. The savagery of Paul Stirling and Morgan, who put on 113 between them in 41 balls, meant they chased it with two overs to spare.
6. So what is a good total in T10?
Halving the average T20 score at Sharjah Cricket Stadium works out at about 72. That proved an abysmal gauge for the first T10 competition. No team made a score lower than the 84 for 7 that TSLC posted against Pakhtoons. The top score was 132 for 1, by Punjabi Legends, while most agreed around 120 was challenging.
“It is a huge benefit winning the toss and bowling,” said Morgan, the winning captain with Kerala Kings. “You can come unstuck batting first and trying to get too many.”
Rossouw said of his method: “I tried to go from ball two – so no real pacing. It is see ball, hit ball. You can’t let [wickets falling] upset you, you just have to carry on with your momentum. If it is [in] your arc, you have got to go for it, you can’t sit back for an over. You have to keep on going.”
7. Overworked Ramiz
Such is the frenzy of a day, night, whatever, at T10, it is hard to know whether you are coming or going most of the time. Ramiz Raja, perhaps more than anybody else, will have been glad to have had his director on point, and nudging him exactly where he needed to go.
With such a brief turnaround between matches, Ramiz had to go from interviewing the captains at the toss for the next game, straight to conducting the post-match ceremony of the previous one. It goes without saying, rarely was there a hair out of place, but he was occasionally terse. After the match when Afridi took a hat-trick, the recipients of the various post-match awards were proving difficult to herd. “Just stand there and concentrate,” Ramiz ordered Afridi.
8. The Indian question
A team bearing the name Kerala won the tournament, but their relation to India was tenuous. They were led by an Irishman who captains England, while their star players were drawn from West Indies, Ireland and Pakistan. Even the franchise owner, Hussein Adam Ali, a perfume tycoon, is from Yemen.
The only Indian player anywhere in the league was Sehwag, the Maratha Arabians captain, who in fact tried his best to not be spotted for most of it. It is unquestionable that the tournament would have a far bigger pull with more Indians playing. But Sehwag said anyone who did want to make the trip would have to take the sort of measures that led him to playing in the MCL in 2016. “Players can retire and then play this T10 League,” he said on the prospects of getting his compatriots involved.
9. The UAE question
India-born Shaji Ul Mulk and Pakistan-born Salman Iqbal, the co-founders of the T10 League, are both long-term residents of the UAE. It was their stipulation that there be at least two UAE players per playing squad – in all but the Sri Lankan franchise – with at least one guaranteed starter in the playing XI. Next year, the quota will be expanded to four per squad – with an extra two teams set to join, too – with two in every starting line up.
A noble intention, granted, but the captains might need some encouragement to get with the programme. Of the five UAE players who had game time, Ghulam Shabber and Saqlain Haider did not get to bat. Rohan Mustafa, the UAE captain, made it to the crease in time to face just one ball, as he was batted at No. 7 – admittedly in a highly-destructive Kerala batting line up. When he did, he hit the winning runs in the semi-final.
Two bowlers did at least get a decent chance, Zahoor Khan for Maratha Arabians and Mohammad Naveed for Bengal Tigers. Naveed enjoyed the most luminous moment of all, when he snapped Afridi’s middle stump in two with a perfect yorker.
10. What next?
Does the T10 format have a future? The attendances suggest it has a chance, while the testimonies of players of experience and wisdom support that. Morgan reiterated his belief after the final that it is the format fit for the Olympics, while Stirling hopes the league is here to stay.
“It is quite exciting, especially for the new audience, people who are new to the game of cricket,” said Misbah-ul-Haq, the captain of the losing finalists Punjabi Legends. “It is definitely going to attract them because it is more exciting, and there are thrills throughout 90 minute. To attract new people to this game, this is the way to go.”
Sehwag agreed. “It is always good to come back to Sharjah and play some games, this format is perfect for the crowd,” he said. “I think T10 is the way forward, I can say that. If ICC thinks that, and they want to take cricket to the Olympics, I think this is the format for that.”