Gloom has lifted but UAE cricket faces seminal 10 days at Namibia play-off
When Rohan Mustafa, Ahmed Raza and Rameez Shahzad find their spaces in the dressing room at Wanderers Sports Club in Windhoek next week, it won’t just be the company that is familiar.
The three mates, who were Sharjah schoolboy peers a couple of decades ago, might plonk down their kit bags, then fix each other with a look, and say: “Here we go again.”
The trio have seen the very best and worst UAE cricket has to offer over the course of storied careers, which are all fully intertwined.
Now they are going back into the breach – Mustafa and Shahzad as players, Raza now as the side’s assistant coach – to try to save cricket in the country one more time.
The six-team Cricket World Cup Play-off in Namibia carries with it two places for the final phase of qualifying for the main event in India later this year.
Because of the torrid run UAE have been on, they will also be playing to retain one-day international status. That is vital for a number of reasons.
Aside from the fact ODI privileges guarantee high-quality competitive cricket over the next four years, there is a significant tranche of ICC funding that goes with. It was that money which helped UAE start to offer professional central contracts in the first place, in 2016.
UAE are also, as of this week, without a permanent head coach. The Emirates Cricket Board are on the lookout for a replacement for Robin Singh, whose ill-fated reign was brought to an end after a run of 20 losses in 27 games.
The package they can offer a prospective new coach will be far more attractive if it includes ODI cricket.
So the burden on the players at the Play-off is a significant one. Fortunately, a number of them have been here before.
Back in February 2018, UAE played at the World Cricket League Division 2 in Windhoek with exactly the same things at stake. They got through it, but only after the most nerve-shredding finish imaginable.
Dougie Brown, the UAE coach at the time, said the experience had been the most draining of his long career in professional cricket, pointing out they had been playing for their livelihoods, in fact their “very existence”.
The inauguration of the DP World International League T20 earlier this year means the ECB are not quite so reliant on ICC funding as they once were, but securing ODI status is still crucial.
They need to finish in the top two out of four teams – the others being Papua New Guinea, Canada and Jersey – to make that happen.
Yes, their form has been dire of late. But it does feel as though morale will have lifted at a stroke after Singh was not retained following the end of last week’s tour to Kathmandu.
To say the side had been underperforming on the former India all-rounder’s watch is a gross understatement. The UAE side is choc-full with talent.
When on song, captain Muhammad Waseem, is one of the most destructive batters in the world – Associate cricket or otherwise. He is heading to Namibia fresh from his two finest knocks yet in ODI cricket.
His opening partner Aryan Lakra’s emergence was one of the few reasons for cheer over the past month or so. Vriitya Aravind in the prince of UAE batting.
Aravind will be joined in the middle-order by Rameez, its returning king. It is nearly five years since he last played ODI cricket, so it might be harsh to expect great things from Rameez straight away. But he does have an average of 53 and a century against West Indies on his CV.
Nobody suffered more than Mustafa under the Singh regime. Presumably few will have been more pleased to see him go, so maybe Mustafa’s return with the bat will improve relative to his mood.
Next in the order is Asif Khan, a player whose middling international career to date went into hyper-drive last time out, when he hit the fourth fastest ODI ton of all time.
That is the sort of batting line up that should be breaching 300 regularly, not scratching around making scores of 71 and 97, as they did in the death throes of the Singh era.
There is no guarantee returns are going improve all of sudden. But it does feel as though the gloom has lifted, and UAE cricket can look forward to a bright future – all of which depends on the next two weeks. Matches start at 8pm UAE time.