This year's Indian Premier League is as much about cricket as it is about life slowly returning to normalcy post the coronavirus pandemic. With fans barred from entering the stadiums for safety reasons, the business hasn't reached the heights it did when the IPL was played in the UAE in 2014. But taxi drivers across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah are hopeful that the successful staging of the tournament will bring tourists back to UAE.
The taxi driving community across the UAE is mostly made up of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And having seen a huge boost in income when the first half of the 2014 edition of the IPL was played in the UAE, they were hoping for a repeat this time. While the restriction on fans entering stadiums has meant that meeting daily targets is still a concern, the drivers have kept their fingers crossed.
Mohammad Omar, a Bangladeshi who drives his taxi in and around Abu Dhabi, vividly remembers driving Mumbai Indians cricketer Lasith Malinga and his friends back in 2014. But ask him about this season and the vibrant smile is replaced by a more realistic expression as he speaks of hope and positivity.
"When the IPL was played in 2014, there was so much noise and buzz. We were hoping for the same this time before we realised that fans would not be allowed near the players or in the stadium. I remember driving Malinga to the Westin hotel for a party. I think it was an IPL party and he had missed the team bus for some reason.
"Those were the days. We didn't have time to rest. Fans wanted to go to the hotels where players were staying, then taking fans to stadiums, picking them up after the game. The business was at an all-time high. It was like a huge boost. But sadly, this year it is different. There is no rush as fans also know they won't be allowed to meet the stars. But hopefully, with the successful hosting of the IPL, tourists will return to the country," he told ANI.
Asked to elaborate a bit further on meeting Malinga, Omar said: "Brilliant guy. You know his hair is for real. I would always think it is some kind of a wig. But it is so smooth when you see it from close. Also, such a humble guy. While talking to him that night, he said he had a friend who needed to be dropped to Dubai the next day, so I happily agreed.
"In fact, one of my friends has been a die-hard fan of his. So I asked Malinga if it was okay for him to speak to my friend for a minute. He was more than willing to chat with my friend and I connected the phone and my friend was elated. I didn't have a camera phone back then, so some other guy clicked a picture of me with Malinga. But I have lost it somehow. But the memories will stay with me forever."
Omar a self-confessed Kolkata Knight Riders fan says he watched a few games during the 2014 season. "Shakib (Al Hasan) bhai is from our country and he was playing so I went and watched KKR games. The first game in 2014 was here only in Abu Dhabi and Kolkata was playing. The IPL is such a wonderful tournament and I loved watching it. Wish we could go in this time as well, but rules must be followed to get rid of the virus," he said.
Coming back to the present, the excitement of Omar's voice is replaced with sadness. "It has been a struggle. Daily targets that we have are hard to meet but thankfully the companies have been understanding and they have realised that we cannot be earning as much as we did during normal times. But need to be thankful to God for work and hope this period too ends soon and the IPL can play a big role as people across the world are watching," he said.
Echoing the sentiments, Dubai-based Indian driver Mohammad Ismail says that things have been slightly better in Dubai as compared to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, but tourists must return for things to get back to normal.
"People might say what is with the IPL as it doesn't involve our local players. But what a successful IPL will mean is that the government has done a great job in ensuring that normal life can continue while taking precautions. Tourists need to return for us to survive. Our company helped us meet the financial challenges that came with coronavirus, but they cannot keep on helping. We need to start meeting the targets and get back to life like it was before the pandemic," he pointed.
Business in Sharjah is supposedly worst-hit as per Faraz Khan who hails from Pakistan. "Brother now we have been looking at working with customers who call us because getting passengers on the road is almost next to impossible. The IPL has come as a boon and hopefully, things return to normal when people see how this tournament was held successfully without any problem. The fear factor plays an important role and that must go. One needs to realise that if health guidelines are followed and precautions are taken, there is no danger," he said.
Clearly, all eyes are on the league not just in the cricketing world, but also as hundreds look to return to life how they knew before the coronavirus pandemic. (ANI)