Rebuilding UAE look beyond England clash
For a few heady weeks at the start of 2015, a group of amateur cricketers, the most famous a flight-purser by day, played in the World Cup. UAE arrived at the event believing they would record their first win in a world event for 19 years. With a little more nous and luck, both Zimbabwe and Ireland would have been vanquished. Instead two agonising defeats proved the prelude to a winless campaign - and a miserable year. The team preparing to face England is one in need of a tonic.
UAE's side will not be overly familiar to those who last glimpsed them in the World Cup. While the dashing right-hander Shaiman Anwar and hulking fast bowler Mohammad Naveed remain, gone are Khurram Khan and Mohammad Tauqir, twin totems born months either side of the UAE gaining independence from the UK in 1971. While they have left a chasm in the side, at least their departures mean that UAE's average age, which hit 35 during the Intercontinental Cup match with Ireland in June, is heading south.
"Transition" became part of the sports lexicon for times such as this. "We've got a lot of work to do with a newer, less experienced side that needs to evolve and develop," admitted David East, the former Essex wicketkeeper and chief executive who is now CEO of the Emirates Cricket Board.
Across the World Cup, World T20 Qualifiers, World Cricket League Championship and Intercontinental Cup, UAE have played 17 games this year. They have only won two, a solitary win apiece against Canada and Kenya, although an emphatic T20I victory over Oman on Sunday provided a welcome boost. At least the UAE are guaranteed ODI status, and the extra funding that comes with it, until 2018, giving the Emirates Cricket Board an opportunity to hone a new generation.
After their initial competitiveness the World Cup ultimately exposed the limits of UAE's amateurism. In between amassing more air miles in the group stages of the competition than any other country, the team were thumped by India, Pakistan and South Africa. "The World Cup demonstrated the need to change the way we go about things," East says. He hopes to announce the first batch of professional contracts imminently, while selectors will also start to be paid. Facilities will not be an obstacle for the new professionals: the Emirates board has a deal with the ICC to use the world-leading facilities at the ICC Academy in Dubai.
As well as professionalising the national set-up, the ECB is also renewing efforts to take the game to the Emirati population. While almost two-thirds of the 9.5 million who live in the UAE are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, taking the game to the Emiratis would increase the player base and, just as significantly, make the ECB better able to attract government funding.
So it is incumbent on the ECB to advance the sport in Emirati schools. An Arabic speaking cricket coach has been appointed, and a pilot project is underway in Al Ain to introduce school children to the game. "There have already been very encouraging signs," East says. "If it works well we'll roll that out into the cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and hopefully further afield as well."
Those cities invoke copious memories to cricket fans, just not involving UAE themselves. East hopes that will begin to change. "We'll be looking to try and secure fixtures with Full Members en route to the subcontinent or on their way further east to play down under. We're hopeful that's going to happen but we need the cooperation and support of the Full Members."
Playing England is a welcome start, even if the T20 is not a full international. "It would have been good but unfortunately for various reasons that's not been possible," East says. "It became very difficult for us to finance so we decided that it should be a friendly."
Opportunities to play Test nations are so scarce for UAE that there is a sense of an opportunity missed to showcase the national team; despite some initial interest from local broadcasters the fixture is not being televised. An England spokesman said: "Both ourselves and UAE mutually agreed it was best for both parties to play as a warm-up game."
Coming after England were criticised for not being proactive in making their one-day match with Hong Kong a full ODI, it is emblematic of the problems Associate nations face in getting official fixtures. Encouragement may be forthcoming if an ODI Fund, which the ICC chief executive David Richardson has advocated, is agreed at the ICC board meeting in January.
Associates would also benefit from tours being planned earlier, giving them a chance to attract broadcasters and sponsors to fund the matches; South Africa have shown the way, recently announcing that their 2016/17 summer will include fixtures for Ireland against them and Australia. The ICC could also consider relaxing the logistical requirements - including over match officials, approved venues and minimum broadcast and media facilities - for ODIs and T20Is pitting Associates against Full Members, making the games cheaper and easier to stage.
Yet as welcome as more games against Full Members would be for UAE, a miserable year on the field hardly gives the ECB much power to demand them. A chance to witness Jos Buttler's skills first-hand will be a welcome interlude while East leads a period of quiet rebuilding.
"Our ambition has got to be qualification for the World T20 in 2020 and also to do our level best to qualify for the World Cup in 2019," he says. "We're focused on those two objectives and we've got to put the right support systems and selection processes behind the players to make sure that we can compete."
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts