Under a bright Dubai sky on Wednesday, the ILT20 trophy was gleaming at the lush green lawn of the Khaleej Times headquarters.
Barely 48 hours before the start of the big tournament, young UAE students and fans got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with cricket stars as international players like Martin Guptill shared their experiences with the audience.
For the fans, it was a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of the majestic trophy and have interactions with cricketers.
Fans even got a chance to bowl at the stars in a temporary net set up by Khaleej Times, the official media partner of the ILT20.
The second season of the UAE’s IPL-style franchise league will get under way at the historic Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Friday.
The month-long tournament, which earned official status from the ICC, will feature six teams who will fight for the coveted trophy
The other teams in the competition are Abu Dhabi Knight Riders, Desert Vipers, Dubai Capitals and MI Emirates.
On Wednesday, five players, including New Zealand white-ball stalwart Guptill, West Indies star Rovman Powell and Pakistan-born Team USA pace bowler Ali Khan fielded questions from fans on their expectations from the second season of the league.
“I am really excited to be here. The ILT20 was great fun, it was a great experience last year. And looking forward to the Season 2,” said Ali Khan who will defend the colours of Abu Dhabi Knight Riders in the tournament.
“It’s going to be a very tough tournament. You cannot take any team lightly. All the teams look very good. Whoever plays good cricket on the day will win,” added Khan who grew up idolising legendary Pakistani fast bowler Waqar Younis.
After the resounding success in the inaugural edition of the event, the second season promises to be even bigger after the arrival of Australian World Cup legend David Warner (Dubai Capitals) and Pakistan’s star fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi (Desert Vipers).
“This is my first year in the tournament, I missed it last season. Some fantastic cricketers are here for the second season, it’s going to be an exciting tournament,” said Guptill who will play for the Sharjah Warriors.
The tournament, according to Powell, who will be sharing the dressing room with Warner at Dubai Capitals, will also help cricket’s growth in the UAE.
“Every franchise league around the world is helping the local players. That will definitely happen in UAE as well,” the West Indies all-rounder said.
“The ILT20 mixing international players with local players, will really help the game in the UAE. In our team we have some really good local players, Akif Raja is one of them. Last year he was there as an emerging player, and he has done well for himself.”
England’s Max Holden, who will also play for Dubai Capitals, agreed with his teammate Powell.
“Playing against international superstars like David Warner will be a great learning experience for these guys (local players). These guys (international players) have played the game at the highest level for a long time. So I am sure the UAE boys would be looking to gain as much as they can,” Holden said.
Each team have picked two UAE players in the squad as part of the Emirates Cricket Board’s plans to give exposure to the rising stars in the country.
The tournament featuring 34 teams will be played in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the final scheduled for February 17.
Other big names in the tournament include Mark Wood (Dubai Capitals), Joe Root (Dubai Capitals), Andre Russell (Abu Dhabi Knight Riders), Sunil Narine (Abu Dhabi Knight Riders), Alex Hales (Desert Vipers), Wanindu Hasaranga (Desert Vipers), Shimron Hetmyer (Gulf Giants), Mujeeb Ur Rahman (Gulf Giants), Trent Boult (MI Emirates) and Nicholas Pooran (MI Emirates).