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.”