Last Thursday, the UAE cricket team continued their recent revival by celebrating an impressive 50-over series triumph against the Netherlands.
It came exactly a year since central contracts were introduced and the feat proved that the national side is now reaping the rewards after turning professional.
It was 12 months ago on July 20 that a new chapter was marked in UAE cricket as the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) announced their first-ever deals for their players.
Spinner Imran Haider, pacer Qadeer Ahmed, all-rounder Rohan Mustafa and batsmen Mohammed Qasim, Mohammed Usman, Rameez Shahzad and Ghulam Shabbir became the first UAE cricketers to be given two-year, full-time deals.
All-rounder Amjad Javed, spinner Ahmed Raza, pacer Mohammed Naveed and veteran batsman Shaiman Anwar, who are in the UAE on work visas, are on the ECB’s books only as part-time professionals.
It was something that former coach Aaqib Javed had bemoaned since his troops, made up of amateur cricketers at the time, qualified for the 2015 World Cup for just the second time in their history, in February 2014.
It was the second ICC tournament the UAE had reached, having qualified for the 2014 World Twenty20.
The former Pakistan bowler worked wonders with his bunch of players who after completing their full-time jobs in the day would then put in the extra hours on the field on most evenings at the ICC Academy.
ECB soon took action by working on a central contracts plan.
— UAE Cricket Official (@EmiratesCricket) July 21, 2017
Planning for the new system went on for more than a year and during that period especially after their group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup, the team struggled.
They missed out on qualification for the 2016 World T20 and suffered ODI and four-day ICC Intercontinental Cup defeats to Hong Kong.
Yet, the potential was still there, as was shown in the Asia Cup 2016 where the UAE beat Afghanistan, Oman and Hong Kong in the qualifiers to secure the lone berth in the main tournament. They were lauded for their efforts despite defeats to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
By the time the contracts were finally announced at the ICC Academy (ICCA), Javed was no longer at the helm having ended his four-year stay last May.
However, it was still the start of a new era and although the team enjoyed success as amateur cricketers, the new side could aim for sustained progress with the help of a ‘professional’ set-up.
“This is just the start. I’m sure this will help UAE cricket going forward,” said Waleed Bukhatir, chief selector and member of the ECB board during the press conference last July.
“We hope with this programme players will develop and take them to further heights.”
It means the team is now training five days a week for up to six hours a day, including skill development and fitness sessions at the ICCA in Dubai.
The transition from amateur to professionals was not a straightforward task with the players working with interim coaches – former England internationals Paul Franks and Owais Shah – as the ECB began their search for Javed’s successor.
Franks was winless in his three matches in charge during the Scotland tour in August 2016.
Then under Shah, the team won five games but suffered a group stage exit in the Desert T20, as well as series defeats to Afghanistan and England Lions.
Today, they are showing signs of their top form that once made them one of the best Associate sides in the world under Javed.
Former Warwickshire supremo Dougie Brown has come on board, previously as interim and now head coach. He has made an instant impact, winning 10 out of 13 games – including series wins against Papua New Guinea, Oman and the Netherlands.
It may have taken time to get positive results but Zayed Abbas, official spokesperson for the ECB and board member, insists things are moving in the right direction.
“It’s now paying back and things are changing,” he said. “If you see our results in the last year, our team has been doing much better. Of course we cannot expect overnight success but we are going in the right direction.”
He added: “The way we are working as a board and a team is a lot different to what it was in the past.
“When you have players who are professionals, it will be different to what it was when they were amateurs as you couldn’t expect much since they came in the evenings to train. Now you can see the players are winning and small steps are being taken.”
One major factor that has helped the national team grow is the ICCA. Players sweat it out at the state-of-the-art facility during their training sessions.
Also, the ICCA have been in a strategic partnership with the ECB, as part of their High Performance programme, since 2014. That means ICCA’s staff share their expertise with the UAE players and also help arrange matches with visiting teams who train at the venue while preparing for upcoming tours.
This has allowed the UAE to play against a variety of opponents including some of the English counties that toured during pre-season in March.
With the cricketers also putting in up to three hours in the gym a day under the watchful eyes of Peter Kelly – sports science lead at ICCA and UAE’s strength and conditioning coach – Will Kitchen has noticed a big change in the players’ fitness levels.
“Absolutely, it’s totally different,” said Kitchen, who oversees the High Performance programme and is the general manager of the ICCA. “We have got a group of highly-tuned athletes.
“When we took them on last June, they were talented players but weren’t playing on a daily basis. There are still areas to improve but I think we are getting to see the real benefits of the programme they’ve been undertaking.”
One player who has been there every step of the way – from being an amateur to a professional – is skipper Mustafa.
The 28-year-old all-rounder has played a pivotal role in the team’s recent surge and is pleased the hard work is beginning to pay off after a difficult start.
“After the Scotland tour, there were some saying there was no use in giving us contracts,” he said.
“I always believed you have to be patient and we are practising hard and working on our weaknesses. We have improved a lot and I’m 100-per-cent sure will be even better this time next year,” added the left-handed batsman.
Sharing that vision is Brown who has no doubt that having centrally contracted players is an “enormous” boost. “If you are working with part-time players the impact can be quite limited,” he said.
“You need to have a core of players to reinforce the team’s values and it’s really important for them to realise what they want to be. We are getting there and have seen that in the last 12 months.”
World domination. There is no better way to describe the NBA’s ultimate goal. And where countless supervillains in cliché action movies have failed, the league has thrived to the point where it’s no longer a pipe dream, but an inevitability.
There is no corner of the globe the NBA doesn’t want to reach and the league’s interest in Dubai highlights just how concerted its effort is to expand.
In the UAE, basketball may be far down the list of most popular sports, trailing football and cricket by a wide margin. Yet, the NBA is more than just the product on the court and a city like Dubai fits the mould of what the league is looking for in a potential hub.
Which is why the emirate could very well be hosting an NBA preseason game in two to three years, according to Ben Morel, senior vice president and managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
The league’s Global Games series has travelled to 20 different countries since the first international contest took place back in 1978 and the UAE could soon join that exclusive club.
“It would be great to do that in the next two or three years,” Morel said at a media gathering on a trip to Dubai last month. “In terms of our calendar it’s pretty compact, but we’re looking at pre-season, sometime in October.”
It’s a notion that would make any basketball fan in the region giddy. Dubai has previously hosted high profile events like the exhibition between Duke University and the UAE national team in 2011 and the FIBA U17 World Championship in 2014, but the presence of the NBA would be ground-breaking.
Bringing an NBA game to Dubai, however, is contingent on the availability of a suitable venue capable of hosting such a massive undertaking and currently, it’s unclear if one exists.
As it stands, Hamdan Sports Complex, which hosted the aforementioned FIBA U17 World Championship, remains the best option, but is also less than ideal. For one, the multi-purpose arena is primarily used for swimming and would require some adaptation in terms of positioning the court and seating.
While there are workable solutions to that issue, there isn’t one for the venue’s location, which is not the most accessible. Located off Emirates Road, transportation can be a hurdle when it comes to HSC.
Alternatives are limited right now but one of Dubai’s great qualities, and perhaps its most defining, is its constant development. In what would be very fitting of the city’s identity, an NBA game could be played at a venue that has yet to even be built – or yet to be completed anyway.
Dubai-based holding company Meraas announced last November that a 20,000-seat indoor arena next to City Walk is in the works. Set up to be the city’s premier entertainment venue, the 500,000 square foot Dubai Arena is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, which conveniently fits Morel’s timeline for bringing a game to the UAE.
The venue will also be managed by AEG Ogden, part of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which is affiliated with renowned sites like The O2 in London and Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Morel didn’t confirm if Dubai Arena has indeed been circled by the NBA, but said: “We are actively looking at the opportunities. We do need some arena standards. There are a lot of ongoing projects, so we’re carefully monitoring the situation to be able to do that in the near future.”
He added: “I think it’s something where basketball belongs, rather than giving it a size restriction. We can be flexible. The NBA is beyond basketball, it’s a show. You’d want to do a game justice and make sure for one night, the people from the region can actually experience what an NBA game is. So we want to make sure we’ve got the capability to reproduce it.”
Even if Dubai Arena ends up as the elixir that enables the NBA to come to Dubai, hosting a game can’t be the be-all and end-all.
As Morel explains, games in the region would be great, but it would only be for one night. The league is thinking bigger than that and is equally focused on bringing the complete NBA experience to fans and creating new followers.
How does the NBA plan to do that? Grassroots initiatives are at the top of the list and Jr. NBA programmes could be brought over to develop the youth.
For example, Morel envisions potentially taking 30 schools and affiliating each one with an NBA team and creating a mini tournament to both educate and grow the love of the game.
On the entertainment side, outdoor spaces and malls in Dubai could host NBA festivals or zones to inspire more engagement and hand-on experiences.
At the end of the day though, the NBA’s biggest play to draw an international audience has been, and will continue to be, through the use of technology.
Compared to every major sporting league worldwide, the NBA has been at the forefront for offering digital content, from social media to YouTube and everything in between.
But this past season, the league reached new heights by offering a ‘mobile view’ for League Pass and games in virtual reality. With how popular technology is in Dubai, as well as the omnipresence of mobile phones, the new features are sure to be loved in the region.
“It’s the start of VR, but we believe basketball has a huge opportunity there because we’ve got the best seats in the world of sports with our courtside seats,” Morel said.
“If you can replicate that courtside seat experience, whether you’re in Latin America, the US, Dubai or China and you’re sitting on your sofa and saying ‘What are we doing tonight, this morning or this afternoon? Let’s be at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden.’ This is where it’s all
NBA brand stores are also on the way. The Middle East’s first store will arrive in Qatar by the end of the year, followed by one in Dubai. A store may have already opened in the region had it not been for the league’s apparel partnership transitioning from Adidas to Nike for next season, but the wait should be well worth it considering the Swoosh’s presence in the emirates.
“I know Dubai is a very, very important market for Nike specifically and basketball is one of the big global marketplaces for them, so expect some strong NBA Nike activity in this area,” Morel said.
It all sounds promising, but Dubai’s population and culture make it a unique challenge for the NBA. Fortunately, the league appears up to the task and while the region will require some trial and error, the NBA’s appetite to be a global entity is too much of a driving force.
“We have an enormous following in the Middle East, but we’re not doing enough… It’s an area of the world where I think we should be doing more,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“I’d say we just haven’t figured out a way to crack the market yet. But I think that there’s a lot more that we can and will do there.”
It’s been eight long months since the death of Jose Fernandez yet the heart still aches. Memories of the huge smile and machine-like arm which transported the Cuban pitching sensation into the big time have been interwoven with revelations of needless recklessness and substance abuse.
While the baseball world mourned Fernandez, 24, last September after his body was found in a smashed-up boat in South Florida, it must be noted two other young men perished alongside him.
The relatives of Eduardo Rivero and Emilio Macias , who’d been partying with the pitcher, are hurting too. Both parties have launched legal battles after it was revealed the Miami Marlins star was found to be driving the boat under the influence of alcohol and cocaine.
If Fernandez had survived, he could have been facing years behind bars. Yet while everyone attempts to digest the devestating findings of the inquest which broke in March, Univision – the top Spanish language broadcaster in the United States – have produced an enlightening, excellent documentary. JDF16 reveals a side of Fernandez’s galaxy away from the person who acted so dangerously that fateful night.
With no help from the MLB (their fierce licensing rights forbade any official footage being used) and a thoroughly disappointing snub from the Marlins front office who were scared stiff of the film portraying the player and franchise in a less than favourable light, journalists David Adams and Laura Prieto Uribe attempted to show the real Fernandez.
Not a crazed fool who thought it was a good idea to drive a boat at breakneck speed at 03:00, but a young man with a baseball dream who placed family before anything.
A supremely talented, happy-go-lucky lad who saved his mother from drowning in a boat charged with taking them from Cuba to the safe haven of the United States. “Jose’s mother didn’t want to talk at first because of the drugs, the partying,” Adams told Sport360°.
“She thought we were going to portray her son as the guy from that night. That wasn’t our objective. We wanted to show how someone from Cuba starting out from where he was became such a big star.”
Watching the documentary unfold, you are instantly warmed by Fernandez. He was a charming, lovable mother’s boy who just happened to possess the ability to launch a baseball at 100mph/160kph.
“At 06:00 he was on the streets playing with a stick and stones. Any stick he found was a bat. He broke the glass on the neighbors’ doors”, recalled mother Maritza Gomez Fernandez.
Others remembered games involving balls made out of mud and running through the streets after accidentally hitting homeruns towards an elderly woman. There was mischief. Yet it wasn’t malicious.
“I knew nothing about baseball, so for me it was more that this guy has such an interesting life and it was such a dramatic death, it was a story worth telling,” said Prieto Uribe. “It became more interesting with each step. It captivated us as people and filmmakers. He was the only name I knew from the Marlins. I knew he was big but… “It’s impossible not to feel empathy towards him.”
It’s also impossible not to mull over his death and lament what should have been. At the film’s end, once the shock of his family is laid bare, some astonishing statistics flash up:
1. In the last 100 years, only 97 players aged 20 or under have pitched more than 100 innings in a season – Fernandez ranked second among all of them.
2. He holds the fourth-highest number of strikeouts in a season for pitchers under 24 with 253 outs in 2016.
3. He struck out 31 per cent of the batters he faced – the best record in Major League history – winning 69 per cent of the games he pitched making him arguably the best Cuban player ever.
Remarkable numbers which make his needless passing all the more painful. “He was especially blessed,” said former Marlins coach Chuck Hernandez. With girlfriend Maria Arias pregnant with daughter Penelope at the time of the crash, Fernandez was gearing up to sign a multi-million dollar deal which would have set his family up for life.
His rookie contract was worth around $2 million and due to expire next year. The new one was said to be in the region of $270 million. Talks had begun yet will never be completed. Once the money runs out, that’s it.
The Marlins, because Fernandez no longer plays for them, don’t have the rights to his name so you won’t find any merchandise bearing his name in the Marlins Stadium shop.
This season the players have had a No16 stitched into their uniforms while talks of a statue being built in his honour has sparked fierce debate.
Some, quite understandably, argue that a man whose actions killed two others shouldn’t be lauded. Others counter with the need to show that with fame comes responsibility. To the large Cuban community in Miami, Fernandez was a hero. A beacon of hope. A legend.
“They are desperate to preserve Jose’s legacy,” said Adams, a Brit who moved to South Florida in the 1990’s and has become enthralled with America’s favourite pastime. “Some fans would love a statue, some say we shouldn’t lionise someone who died with cocaine and alcohol in their system and contributed to the death of two others. But maybe it’s a lesson and reminder to people about the pitfalls of fame. Tell people to be responsible. There are a lot of accidents on the water, normally involving alcohol. “Why should Jose be judged by the way he died?” he added.
“He was 24, all of us have done reckless things. Society is too quick to judge sometimes. There are always haters who will go on radio shows and say strong things but we shouldn’t be like that. “Maybe we should be more forgiving and understanding and recognise that people aren’t either good or bad. “That was Jose’s story.”
Delving into Fernandez’s path to the Marlins was quite something. The trials and tribulations involved just to get to that point would have been too much for a lesser man.
Three botched attempts to leave Cuba on an illegally-commandeered boat simply strengthened his resolve.
Four state championships at high school paved the way to the Major Leagues at the age of 18 – just three years after arriving in the US – and being named ‘Rookie of the Year’ even if the Cuban authorities attempted to have their say at the stat by banning him from baseball for a year.
“When he tried to leave Cuba for the second time, the Minister of Sports punished him,” said cousin Yordan Gomez. “One of the times he came to visit family, we went to eat at a restaurant and the minister was there.
“And he told him, ‘good evening. Do you know who I am? I am Jose Fernandez, the person you banned for a year for trying to leave the country illegally on the verge of playing in the baseball world championships for 13 and 14-year-olds.
“Star pitcher for the Marlins. Rookie of the year and I want to tell you that your punishment didn’t affect my career in the least. “Today, I am bigger than ever. And today what you eat and drink is paid for by Jose Fernandez.”
That tale seemed characteristic of the boy. Fiercely determined yet going about his business with a smile. His sad demise, however, continues to raise more questions than answers.
“The investigation didn’t come out too favourably for Jose but it didn’t actually answer the questions about how the drugs entered his system, whose was it, who bought it?” said Adams.
“These are all unanswered questions. The tick-tock of that night, we still really don’t know. The others were new friends. One he’d just met that evening. “It shocked us and although it made us think for a few seconds we knew that the inquest didn’t change the story for us.
“How this little boy turned into a major leaguer. “The investigators were unable to retrieve any information from Jose’s phone. A more sophisticated investigation may be able to dig something up.
“Also now there are civil lawsuits – moved from state to federal – and the family are fighting very hard to reduce his liability and show he wasn’t as responsible perhaps as the investigation has shown. “They are digging into what happened very aggressively so it will be interesting to see what’s found.”
Fernandez’s legend lives on though no-one involved will be able to rest with legal battles set to rage for another two years. That’s a lot of time for anger to simmer and memories to become tarnished. Those closest will never forget.
It’s other perceptions -rightly or wrongly – which could become altered. “The fans, team and family need closure,” concludes Prieto Uribe.