Move up the order unlocks Rohan Mustafa's potential
Heartwarming stories abound in Associate cricket. You'll find one in any direction you turn to, if you've managed to sneak into the UAE dressing room. Their T20 captain is a cargo load master. Peel the grey uniform, pads and gloves from their wicketkeeper, and you see a receptionist in sensible suits. One of their players had a case filed against him by his employer for playing cricket for a different company. That man was banned from living in the UAE for a year, in September 2014, and forced to return to Pakistan. He made an early return thanks largely to the intervention of Aaqib Javed, the UAE coach.
In 2016, he may well be among the first UAE players to become a fully-fledged professional cricketer. Meet Rohan Mustafa, a 27-year old allrounder and the new record holder for the country's highest score in T20Is.
The Emirates Cricket Board is attempting to provide central contracts for its players. Aaqib has gained a lot of his success - World T20 debut in 2014 and World Cup return in 2015 - by asking his players to think of themselves as full-time cricketers. Rohan has taken those words to heart. His fitness and fielding are considerably better than amateur. Normally an offspinner, he can also double up as a more than handy seam bowler. And in Fatullah, he showed he wasn't too shabby as a batsman either: 77 runs off 50 balls at a strike-rate of 154, as an opener. UAE have been looking for one of those for a long time, so why not put Rohan on retainer?
"It will change UAE cricket because, you know," Rohan says. "They [the board] said they will announce the contracts after the tournament. I know my name is there."
When that paycheck arrives, it will symbolise the culmination of a dream he has had since he was eight years old. A dream his father had for him, but couldn't see becoming reality - Mustafa Kamal died when Rohan was only 15. "I've struggled a lot for this cricket and I think my time has come and inshallah I hope I can perform."
And a performance it was. Stinging cover drives went together with slogs and sweeps - both conventional and reverse. The bowler's reputation didn't matter to him - he charged at Shapoor Zadran's first ball and smacked it for four - and he also had the street-smarts to out-think Afghanistan. They introduced spin in the fifth over to try and slow things down, only for Rohan to tonk Amir Hamza's left-arm orthodox for two sixes and a four. For once UAE's Manhattan looked like Manhattan. A bevy of Burj Khalifas, if you will. An unusual sight for a team whose average run rate in Twenty20 cricket is 6.81, and 6.45 in T20Is. In Fatullah, they were 99 after the first 10 overs and finished with 176.
Afghanistan were favourites to win the Asia Cup qualifiers and go through to the main round. They had the frightening pace battery, the bruising top order and the experience of dominating Associate teams for quite a while (and the odd Full Member recently), but now they may need other results to go their way to progress into the main draw. It took a while for their bowlers to get their bearings, and when they did the fielders didn't provide proper back up. Rohan's innings could have ended at 51 in the 10th over had Karim Sadiq taken a simple catch at long-on. Instead, he got to show some more of the promise people have seen in him since his under-19 days.
Rohan made his UAE debut in 2007, at 19, but has become a permanent member of the side only since 2013. Two fifties in 57 innings across formats indicate he still hasn't lived up to potential, but this latest innings may serve as a fine, if unexpected, lifeline for the left-hander.
It came in a new role too. It was only on Sunday, in the first T20I against Ireland, that Rohan talked himself into a move up the order.
"It was a surprise for everyone," Rohan says. "I've never opened for UAE over the last couple of years, but I was opening in domestic cricket and I told the coach, the day we lost against Ireland, I told him just give me opening and I can do something for UAE. He said if you are confident, we will give you the opportunity. We haven't been that good at the top in the last two-three years. I was performing quite well, so I told if I can hit five balls with my bat, I can hit all over the park."
Ever since he established himself in the senior side, UAE have been looking at Rohan to be their new Khurram Khan. Khurram himself is hopeful of that happening. He is part of the selection panel that picked this Asia Cup squad, along with former captain Mohammad Tauqir and Waleed Bukhatir, son of Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, who helped build the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.
Rohan has shown plenty of potential playing for Danube Lions, one of the strongest teams in UAE corporate cricket. He led them to their maiden trophy in the Al Hamad Division 1 tournament in Abu Dhabi in 2013, and has held his own playing against the likes of Anwar Ali and the Akmal brothers, who have turned out for Grand MidWest, another heavyweight in the competition. But Rohan's aggression is a more recent development.
"I don't play like that, but over the last three or four matches, even the last domestic match I played before coming here, two-three days ago, I was playing against one of the best teams in UAE. They scored 205 and we were chasing, so I made 70, same knock, again I was hitting all over the park. Same thinking, I came today."
Aaqib backs Rohan and the aggression his team showed today. "Actually he's been playing for UAE over the last few years, but didn't get a chance to bat up the order. Recently he started opening in domestic cricket and started doing well so that was the plan. On flat pitches, he can be very devastating."
Rohan himself credits the support staff for making the best use of him: "Don't worry about getting out, our coach told me. If you get out, you will play again. So that was a big boost." It fed his bowling as well: he was given the last over, and well before it was complete, he had three wickets and Afghanistan were bowled out. With performances like that, Rohan's dream may have only just begun.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo