Through Desert Cubs Cricket Academy, Polonnowita is hoping he’s coaching youngsters who will one day make their name with the national team.
Just this past year, the academy had 11 children represent the UAE in the Under-19 boys team and the UAE ladies team.
That achievement has been the culmination of years of development, with Desert Cubs originally starting with just 11 children in 2007 at Sharjah Stadium, to now fielding around 800 registered cricketers and nearly 350 playing badminton, swimming and athletics at three different locations in Sharjah and Dubai.
Polonnowita is the founder and head coach of the academy, with plenty of playing experience under his belt from his days in his native Sri Lanka, where he represented the nation’s U18 team and was a first-class cricketer. Due to dwindling financial support in the country prior to the 1996 World Cup, Presley moved to the UAE for better opportunities in 1994. He continued playing with Lanka Lions until 2005, before coaching the club and then finally launching Desert Cubs.
“Ultimately I realised my playing time is over and it’s time for me to become a good coach and produce more and more talented cricketers for the UAE national teams,” Polonnowita said. “I knew that the UAE needed good players for them to break the ice and become one of the top cricket-playing nations in the world.”
Polonnowita has recently started an elite coaching programme in which he searches and drafts talented kids into U-11, U-13 and U-15 age groups. His plan is to keep these teams together for two, three years to match up with the UAE U-16 selection requirement.
To prepare the young athletes, Desert Cubs’ coaching teaches more than just batting technique or basic fundamentals. Budding players improve not only their physical fitness, but their mental strength through psychology sessions.
“We’ve thought out of the box with psychology sessions, strengthening programmes and in-house extra programmes to give kids an opportunity and make them understand what they have to do to get to the next level,” Polonnowita said.
While training and coaching is crucial, nothing beats actual international competition, which is why Desert Cubs have toured in countries like South Africa, Australia, England, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia to give their youngsters a taste of what it takes to be a high-quality cricketer.
“We have given children a lot of opportunities to go around the world and experience different conditions,” Polonnowita said.
“It gives them an idea of how to adapt to other conditions, how other children play, how the wickets are behaving differently than in the UAE.
“Once they represent the national team, they will have that knowledge.”
Cricket is the backbone of Desert Cubs, but beginning in 2012, they’ve expanded to now support badminton, swimming and athletics to a multi-sport club.
Their locations are at Sharjah English School, Deira International School and Dubai College.
If you’re a young cricketer or have interest in one of Desert Cubs’ other sports, visit www.desertcubs.com for more details and how to get involved.
What: Desert Cubs Cricket Academy
Geared towards: Cricket, badminton, swimming and athletics enthusiasts
When & where: Open daily at Sharjah English School, Dubai College and Deira International School
Contact & info: Visit www.desertcubs.com for more information
The defending champions have travelled to the UAE with an 18-man squad without Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett, Joe Root and David Willey, who are with England at the World Twenty20 in India, while Jonny Bairstow has been rested.
The quintet’s absence means there’s a chance for all-rounder Matthew Waite and academy wicket-keeper Jonathan Read.
Despite being dominant in the longer format of the game, evident by their back-to-back Division One titles, Yorkshire have had a difficult time in the English Twenty20 competition, with group stage exits in the past two seasons.
While opener Lees admits it will be tough to defend their title in a tournament featuring the MCC, Lancashire and the UAE, he hopes there are plenty of positives to gain.
“Hopefully we can give some young players, who haven’t featured heavily in previous competitions, a chance to show their worth in this competition,” he said.
“We have to make sure we have a good balance of bowling and batting in the team.
“By giving the players, who’ve not had much playing time, it can give us a good clear indication of which players to use when the actual Twenty20 English domestic competition begins next season.
“I’m looking forward as to what stage the players skills are at, and what we need to work on. It’s a great learning curve for us.”
Yorkshire have happy memories of this tournament, having defeated three-time champions Sussex by 74 runs to get their hands on the trophy last year.
And the 22-year-old is looking forward to showcasing his skills in a vibrant atmosphere.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to get T20 cricket in the lads legs particularly for next season and be ready for the competitive games,” he said.
“Dubai is an amazing place. It’s second to none. The conditions are good to bat on and offers a little bit of seam on the spin and it’s different to what we’re used to in England.”
Friday’s competition at Dubai’s Sevens ground is the first outing for the national team since their impressive showing at last month’s Asia Cup, which was held in Bangladesh.
As underdogs for the lone automatic berth, Raza and his team-mates stunned Afghanistan, Oman and Hong Kong to qualify for the main competition, before pushing Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in their close defeats.
They will be aiming to replicate that success in the one-day tournament which features the MCC, led by England international Ian Bell, Lancashire and defending champions Yorkshire.
While it’s considered a pre-season competition for the English sides ahead of the start of next month’s domestic season, Raza insists they want to make a strong impression.
“It’s very important that we carry the momentum from what we gained at the Asia Cup,” said the 27-year-old spinner, whose side face English T20 domestic champions Lancashire in the semi-final.
“If we don’t take that form and confidence into this tournament, we’ll be quite disappointed. We don’t want people to raise their eyebrows that the Asia Cup was a one-off performance.
“We are the UAE national team and coming up against some of the best English county sides in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
“We’re not just there to make up the numbers, we want to do well and go as far as possible and hopefully win the competition.”
Raza is one of the experienced players in a new-look 14-man squad, led by Amjad Javed.
Only nine have been retained from the team that travelled to the Asia Cup with batsmen Shabbir Ahmed, Mohammad Qasim, Rameez Shahzad and bowlers Mohammad Ayaz and Imran Haider drafted in.
Despite the changes, Raza feels there’s plenty of talent in their side that can cause a lot of problems for the opposition.
“The new guys have been doing really well in training and shown a lot of promise,” he said.
“As a team and individuals, you want to play against players and teams who are better than you. Some of the best young English players are here, while Ian Bell is an exceptional player.
“We have some dangerous players and we will want to make a strong impact. We want to test our skills and we want to prove a point and do well.”
He added: “It’s important that we focus on our game. We’ve noticed that everyone seems to have watched us on television in the Asia Cup. The Emirates Airline T20 is a great competition that brings a lot of crowd.”
For Lancashire, it’s the first time they will be playing in the shortest format since they won the English T20 Blast competition in August.
And captain Steven Croft feels the UAE will provide a stern test for his players.
“We’re going to be taking the tournament very seriously,” said the 31-year-old all-rounder.
“I think T20 is great for cricket in general and we’ve seen some of the Associates do really well in the World Twenty20. If you look at the skill level, it’s really high. You can’t take anyone for granted. It’s really pleasing to see the Associates doing really well and you have to give them the respect they deserve.”
Now in its seventh edition, the Emirates Airline Twenty20 has gone from strength to strength and Sport Arabia’s managing director Matthew Jackson insists this year’s will be no different.
“We think the Emirates Airline Twenty20 brings a unique cricketing experience. It provides top quality cricketers and is a great day out for families,” Jackson said.
For tickets and more information, visit www.emiratest20.com.