World T20 March 11, 2014

Moonlighting as a cricket team

UAE are making a return to a world-level tournament after 18 years, with a semi-professional squad that has punched above its weight

The six Associate nations participating in the World T20 typify a variety that is unique to international cricket. They offer a range of histories, from the qualification tournament last November to their own personal back stories, providing considerable interest in the first phase of the tournament, which starts on March 16.

Ireland and Afghanistan are likely to give Full Members Zimbabwe and Bangladesh a tough challenge in the first round. Netherlands will look to revive the spirit of 2009, when they stunned England in the tournament opener. Nepal and Hong Kong are making their first appearance on the big stage, and UAE are returning to a world-level tournament after 18 years, with a curious group of semi-professionals.

Khurram Khan is an airline steward who moonlights as the UAE captain. His team-mate Vikrant Shetty recognises himself as an amateur cricketer; the rest of his time is spent working as a media planner in an advertising company.

"You can't take cricket seriously as a career in the UAE at the moment," Khurram said. "We all have different full-time jobs and we play in our spare time. Qualifying for the World Cup is a huge achievement for a team which is not professional. But the times are changing and there are lots of young players coming into the game who can take up cricket as a career."

Shetty is on annual leave at the moment, though his employers have let him take additional time off as a special case.

"It actually feels good because most of the times I am arranging PR conferences for our clients while now I am actually in a press conference where I am getting questioned," he said. "So it's an interesting thing for me. I am not sure which team [those in the UAE] will be supporting because there are many immigrants who are working in the office, but hope they support UAE and that we make a mark."

Cricket in the UAE has grown steadily with qualification to the Under-19 World Cup, the World T20, as well as the 2015 World Cup - their first since 1996 - and prompted the Emirates Cricket Board to offer central contracts to the players. Their coach, Aaqib Javed, who deserves credit for managing his players effectively, was confident the decision will help change thinking in the UAE.

"We have 25 to 30 players in the pool," Aaqib said. "Khurram is working in Emirates Airlines. We have two players who are working at the manager level. Few are doing different jobs. We have already chalked out a plan in cricket. After getting ODI status and qualifying for 2015 World Cup, we are about to offer them a central contract. It will definitely help them get more time for cricket."

Aaqib praised Khurram for being the most hard-working cricketer in the team - one who turns up for training even after long stints at work. "He [Khurram] is one guy who has set high standards. He is 42, and he is the most consistent run-getter.

"A perfect role model for others because when he takes flights from Dubai to America, it takes 14-15 hours," Aaqib said. "He only has few hours to rest and he comes to the practice.

"We are unique because we only practice at night. Now we are introducing tough training sessions, of international level."

Aaqib spent almost a decade playing cricket for Pakistan before joining the team as support staff. It was the challenge of working with an Associate nation and building a talent pool to compete at the highest level that prompted him to take over the reins at UAE.

"They were in very ordinary physical condition," he said. "I was shocked on the first day. They work ten hours in the offices and in the evening they come for practice. They are already mentally and physically tired.

"I talked to them, convinced them - if you work hard, it will help you in your daily routine. I think it definitely was a positive response from the players. We have achieved a lot in two years. There is a lot of room to improve."

After Aaqib took over, UAE won one first-class game (and drew three), eight out of 13 T20 matches, and 11 out of 19 one-day games.

"I think they are better by 50% in every aspect," he said. "Mentally they believe in themselves. They have played some good cricket. Apart from playing in the UAE, they have qualified for the 2015 World Cup. They are semi-pro. The next step is to make them professionals. It won't be easy but we will get there."

The preliminary phase will itself be a tough hurdle for Aaqib and Khurram's UAE, with Ireland and Zimbabwe also vying for the only spot in the main tournament. But for a band of men for whom cricket is a secondary occupation, their simple presence in the tournament is cause for celebration.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here