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Usman typifies UAE's unlikely lads

Amjad Javed celebrates the wicket of Quinton de Kock Getty Images

A few weeks ago Rohan Mustafa was about as close to a T20 hitter as the UAE's team hotel is to Fatullah. Even with a police escort, the journey takes two hours. He blew Afghanistan away with a record 77 off 50 balls on Friday.Mohammad Usman was about as noted as a cricketer as cucumbers are for being spicy. It's only been a year since he's taken to the sport and just about a month since he's been with the national team. His 46 off 22 balls was invaluable in securing a 71-run victory over Oman in Mirpur.UAE themselves had been as likely to come into a tournament and sweep their matches 3-0 as silence would be at the Shere Bangla National stadium when Bangladesh play. They have thumped every opposition in the Asia Cup qualifier and moved to the main round amid much fanfare. This, too, only days after their national coach Aaqib Javed had said he felt depressed watching his batsmen fail time and again."They are the best players available in the T20 format but still they come short every time they are provided with the opportunity," he had told the National as recently as a week ago when they lost at home to Ireland. "I can't understand what's wrong with them but they don't seem to be good enough at this level."So what has happened? Well, a new captain has come in and Amjad Javed is doing an excellent impression of his idol Imran Khan."I am a really lucky captain that I have so many match-winners in my team. Some teams have only one, but I have, I think, 11 match-winners and three others are sitting outside waiting for their turn."That is a fine place to be for any team, let alone an Associate nation that had just lost arguably its best ever player. Khurram Khan retired after the World Cup in 2015, so did their captain at that tournament Mohammad Tauqir. A few months later Saqib Ali, who averaged 51.12 in first-class cricket, bid farewell to international cricket.Things had already been dire, at least on the Twenty20 front. UAE had lost eight straight matches from November 2013 to July 2015. Those memories came rushing back when 2016, the year of the World T20, began with a loss to Netherlands. Then they failed to chase 135 against Ireland because only only three batsmen made more than 15. No wonder Aaqib, who rarely has a bad thing to say about his UAE team, was losing hope.So Amjad decided to go and get hope back. "You have to back the players, back their ability and the way they play in domestic cricket."That worked with Rohan, who had come into the Asia Cup qualifiers after several fine performances at the top of the order for his corporate team back home. His 77 in their opening match - which is now the UAE record in T20Is - came after 14 innings of scores below 30 in a 15-match sequence.And players like Usman, who will need to fill the void left behind by those high-profile retirements, were eased into their roles and protected from pressure."When you make the individual understand his role in the team, you have to do it as simply as possible," Amjad said. "You can't put pressure on them, giving them tough match situations, they won't understand."Or they might understand too well and it might have played on their minds too much."I hadn't been playing well in four-day and one-day cricket so there was a lot of pressure on me," Usman said. "But since coming into the T20 squad Amjad, the captain, helped build my self-belief. 'It doesn't matter if you get out on zero, you go and play your natural game. That's why you are selected in the UAE team,' he said and that's what motivated me."There was no shortage of confidence in Usman's innings against Oman. He turned 111 for 4 in 14 overs into 172 for 6 with an array of uncomplicated shots. Bilal Khan, who was almost unplayable with the new ball, was tonked over cow corner for straying leg side, cut to point for going short and lashed over long-on for delivering a full toss.

Six, four and six in the 18th over of a T20 innings - that's fairly successful handling of pressure. More so considering it was from a man who had only been a year into his cricket career in the UAE leagues before coming into the national team.From wondering if they can build a potent XI, UAE have found a good core of players to work with. In one case, though, they found each other. Ahmed Raza, the left-arm spinner, had played against Usman in the domestic circuit and had been the one to convince Usman to try out for the UAE team. And here they are, in Bangladesh, with three consecutive wins."Coming here, everything started changing," Amjad said. "The self-belief came back. The coach and support staff are right behind you and keep on playing you in the crucial games which makes the player understand that he is the main player of the team. Everyone has understood now and they've helped us qualify for the Asia Cup."That means the players will have to ask for extra days off at their workplaces and the captain is no exception."I have to call them now and get two more weeks off," Amjad said. Emirates Airlines would probably not mind going on without their cargo load master if he can keep UAE's winning streak going. In less than a month, they have beaten Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland, Hong Kong and Oman. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are waiting on the other side.