Aaqib satisfied with World Cup preparation

Khurram Khan tucks one to the on side ICC

On Tuesday, UAE lost to Afghanistan for the first time in an ODI. Despite the narrow loss, head coach Aaqib Javed feels his side is on the right track going into the World Cup. The series against Afghanistan is UAE's final international engagement before they play a series of warm-up matches in January. The 2015 World Cup will be UAE's second appearance in the showpiece event, having last featured in 1996.

UAE are playing Afghanistan in a four-match ODI series - which they currently lead 2-1 - at the ICC Academy, on pitches simulated to match conditions at the World Cup, particularly in Australia, and Aaqib appeared satisfied with the preparations.

"We have done a great job," says Aaqib, a former Pakistan fast bowler. "Now look at the team, the team looks in a good shape. They are fitter, they can tackle pace and bounce now. Pitches like this produce a lot of bounce, much like the Australian pitches. It's not easy.

"If you gave this pitch to any international team, it would not be easy for them too. But still we are managing. They (Afghanistan) have a good pace attack. In three games we passed 250 which is a good sign. I think you won't get more difficult conditions than these."

One cause of concern for Aaqib and his coaching staff is the standard of fielding. At the last count, according to Aaqib, the side had dropped around 10 catches in the three matches against Afghanistan. "Fielding is the only thing I am worried about," he said.

The UAE side have utilised around 18 players in the series against Afghanistan. This is part of their planning for the World Cup. But the captain Khurram Khan, who averages a whopping 270 in the three matches thus far, remains the side's show-stealer.

At 43, Khurram juggles between cricket and his job as a flight purser. Khurram became the oldest player to score an ODI hundred when he struck an unbeaten 132 in the second game against Afghanistan. He did this hours after a long flight from San Francisco.

"He is amazing... exceptional. He flew in from San Francisco, a 16-hour flight, slept overnight, and scored 132 not out the next day," Aaqib said. "At 43 he is as fit as anybody who is in his mid-30s. He sets an example and sets very high standards for others to follow. He is the perfect captain."

That sort of juggling act isn't restricted to Khurram alone. Almost all the players in the UAE squad work at other jobs and find time to fuel their passion for cricket.

"They are not free from work," Aaqib said. "But for the last six months they have been on a sort of stipend which has been good. They are more committed. We get to train five times a week which is a good thing."

Most of the training for the UAE squad happens under lights, since the players train in the evenings, after work.

"Except during the ICC High Performance camp we have never got the opportunity to train during the day," Aaqib said. "Every time we train under lights. But still there is commitment; we are together five times a week. They are quite fit and focused. This is the sort of mentality we want to have. We do not want to think 'oh, you are an amateur, you have problems'. We want to focus on getting to the World Cup and knocking down a few teams."

The current UAE squad has three Emirati passport holders in Fahad Alhashmi, Mohammad Tauqir and Salman Farooq. The last time UAE played the World Cup in 1996 they had two Emiratis in captain Sultan Zarwani and Saeed-al-Saffar.

Aaqib believes the presence of the three Emirati players in the squad will help spread cricket among locals.

"Look introducing cricket to Emiratis is not easy," Aaqib said. "I think cricket is a culture which you learn from your home. Even these the three Emiratis that we have come from a cricketing culture, because their mothers are from India or Pakistan. If you want cricket to be part of the culture, the mothers are always the best way to introduce cricket to kids."

Aiding Aaqib in his preparations is batting coach and former Pakistan all-rounder Mudassar Nazar. A head coach at the ICC Academy, Nazar has been roped in to train the UAE batsmen. Nazar will also travel with the squad to World Cup.

"I have been giving my experience to the batting side," Nazar said. "The problem in the associate member world is that they lose too many wickets against the new ball and then the going gets very hard."

On the recent warm-up tour to Australia, UAE lost four of their six games, but Nazar was happy with the effort put in by the batsmen.

"They gave a reasonable account of themselves," he said. "There were two or three very good partnerships. In these matches against Afghanistan the frontline batsmen have really come to the fore and performed well. One or two of them scored centuries as well. That's a great sign."

The UAE squad have also been through an ICC High Performance Programme (HPP) camp with the likes of former England captain Paul Collingwood focussing on fielding, Paul Franks on fast bowling, and former England wicketkeeper Chris Read on different aspects of glove work.

In the words of Aaqib, all the coaches have delivered a similar message to the whole squad.

"We are always trying to tell them, play the ball, not the bowler. That is the only way to move forward. You have got to believe in yourself, never feel that you are any lesser. You should be always there to compete."