Zimbabwe win puts UAE cricket back on the map but ICC need 10-team World Cup rethink

Denzil Pinto 23/03/2018
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Captain Marvel: Rohan Mustafa (l)

On Thursday evening, just after 20:00, the UAE national team were celebrating another victory. But it was no ordinary win by any means. It was a historic one. They had just beaten a Test nation for the first time – in all formats – following their three-run victory over Zimbabwe in the World Cup Qualifier Super Six stage.

Prior to their final group game in Harare, the UAE had never come out on top against a full member in an ODI. Zimbabwe defeated them in their last meeting at the 2015 World Cup and since 1994, the UAE have lost all encounters to England (once), India (three times), New Zealand (once), Pakistan (three times), South Africa, (twice), Sri Lanka (twice) and West Indies (twice).

On paper, there only seemed one clear winner. The equation was simple for Zimbabwe. Beat the UAE and they would join West Indies in the 2019 World Cup. With ODI status secured until 2022 and already eliminated, the UAE had nothing but pride to play for – but obviously they never read the script.

In a televised match that was beamed to all corners of the globe, it was a chance for them to show the world what they are made of. In the last 18 months they have been showing signs of returning to the formidable Associate nation that they once were, but their rise has rarely been discussed in world cricket. When the chance came, they grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

Mohammad Naveed (3-40 and 22 off 10 runs) showed the glimpses of his potential that has seen him reach 10th in the T20I bowling rankings while skipper Rohan Mustafa proved once again how vital he is with the bat and ball.

Rameez Shahzad returned to the line-up from illness and hit 59 runs while Ghulam Shabbir and Shaiman Anwar played crucial cameo roles. You could see what it meant to the UAE when Naveed pumped his fists in the air after bowling the final ball for two when Zimbabwe needed six runs.

Zimbabwe might not be one of the strongest Test nations but try telling that to the UAE players who had to battle right to the end against an in-form side that had topped their group and defeated a much-fancied Afghanistan team on the way. It was another milestone for UAE cricket and one that has sent out a message to the rest of the world that they are certainly no pushovers.

Head coach Dougie Brown underlined the significance of the result when he tweeted: “Days like today you remember forever! You’re a special group of players @EmiratesCricket #CWCQ18”. Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) member Zayed Abbas also congratulated the national team in a special video message on social media at Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium.

It’s not clear when the UAE will play next but the core of this competitive side will only improve under the guidance of Brown. After ending the tournament on a high, it’s a massive disappointment that they and other nations will not have a chance to showcase their talent on the world stage in England next May.

The ICC’s decision to reduce the World Cup to 10 teams has been strongly criticised and the performances from the ‘minnows’ over the last two weeks in Zimbabwe hasn’t done them any favours.

With just two teams qualifying from the event, the likes of Scotland, Nepal and the UAE already had their work cut out before a ball was even bowled. Scotland will fly back knowing their dreams of reaching their second successive World Cup were dashed in the cruellest of fashions due to rain in their clash against the West Indies while Zimbabwe will have to reflect missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1987. For Ireland, they were beaten to the last spot by Afghanistan in a winner-takes-all match.

The last fortnight has proved there is a strong depth of talent across all teams, who deserve to have their quality displayed on the biggest stage. It wasn’t just the likes of Mustafa, Naveed and Shahzad to impress, but Scotland’s Safyaan Sharif (15 wickets), Zimbabwe’s Sikandar Raza (196 runs and 12 wickets), and Hong Kong’s veteran spinner Ehsan Khan (11 wickets) were among those who stood up. That’s not to mention young Nepalese bowling sensation Sandeep Lamichhane, who is IPL-bound next month.

ICC chief executive David Richardson will again have to defend the idea of having a 10-team World Cup in the lead-up to the tournament. Back in 2015, he stated: “We have to make sure we don’t put Associate members into tournaments just for window dressing.” Judging by the performances we’ve seen in Zimbabwe, Associate nations could have provided a window into the future. One that sadly we will not see.

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Resurgent Saudi Arabia show how UAE must now fully commit to restoration project

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Dutch delight: Bert van Marwijk (r) and Mahdi Ali (l)(Getty).

How times have changed for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

As the Whites joyously celebrated an incredible third place at January 2015’s Asian Cup which, seemingly, verified a long-held belief World Cup 2018 qualification was pre-destined for the ‘Golden Generation’, only expert soothsayers would have predicted a fractured side already sitting at home would instead discover the path to Russia.

Yet this is the scenario which has unfolded ahead of Tuesday night’s third-and-final round clash at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

It is a story of how diverging fortunes speak volumes about the current administration, organisation and health of the combatants’ respective national games.

One made a full commitment to startling change. The other chose inactivity and only a belated reaction when faced with the prospect that a rapid descent was following the ascent of a notable summit.

Victory for the Saudis will put them on the cusp of a return to the globe’s greatest sporting occasion for the first time since 2006. Victory for the UAE is likely to prove inconsequential to hopes which became forlorn many months ago.

A propensity to plumb new depths continued for the once proud Saudis during their travails Down Under. A bedraggled regional behemoth limped into the tournament with criminally-low expectations, respected Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu brought in on loan at the last minute – his return of one wins and two defeats during a group-stage exit no surprise to Asian aficionados.

The contrast to the buoyant UAE was damning. Under the paternal care of boss Mahdi Ali, a tiny nation in size and history was making the most of its limited resources.

Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman became a superstar, while Al Jazira frontman Ali Mabkhout came away with the Golden Boot following an enlivening run which included defeat to Australia in the semi-finals. But a fork in the road had been reached.

The man who led the Netherlands to defeat at the 2014 World Cup final, Bert van Marwijk, was given a sweeping mandate in August 2015 to revitalise all aspects of Saudi football. Plus, an almost-full shot at qualifying for Russia.

In contrast, an understandable error not to recognise a high-water mark had been reached by Ali was compounded by him limping on under two different regimes at the UAE Football Association until terminal double defeat to Japan and Australia this March.

Further ignominy came in the sinuous pursuit of a replacement which ended with Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza being provided with limited preparation time ahead of a predictable 1-1 draw on debut this June in Thailand.

Such a startling turnaround did not happen by chance. Rather, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation recognised the value of introspection after a near decade of tumult.

Lessons difficult to comprehend throughout Middle Eastern football were heeded.

For the UAE to avoid embarrassment on home soil at the 2019 edition, their populace must hope this example will be followed.

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Lining up on the 100m start line like Usain Bolt and five other most nerve-wracking moments in sport

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Runners on the 100m start line on Saturday night in London.

Boxing, cricket, football, golf, athletics and tennis – all six of our featured sports have their own way of creating nerves and delivering memorable sporting moments.

In no particular order, here’s six sporting instances when immense bottle is required to deliver the goods.

What do you make of our picks?

Get in touch on Twitter and via Facebook.

Cricket kicks us off…

FINALE TO A BIG T20 MATCH

KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL - APRIL 03: Carlos Brathwaite of the West Indies celebrates hitting the winning runs during the ICC World Twenty20 India 2016 Final match between England and West Indies at Eden Gardens on April 3, 2016 in Kolkata, India. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Powerhouse: Carlos Brathwaite.

T20 cricket can go either way, it’s the nature of the beast.

But boy, when it doesn’t go your way, you want the ground to swallow you up.

When England were on the brink of securing the World T20 title in Kolkata last April, Ben Stokes was just the man to call upon to bowl the last over and sew up victory.

West Indies needed 19 to win and Stokes’ job was to restrict the free-flowing bat of Carlos Brathwaite.

The next four balls – which weren’t bad deliveries at all by the Englishman – were all smacked out of the ground for sixes to help the Caribbean side to victory.

International cricket is decided by fine margins and when the pressure is really on, like it was in India for the Durham man, it boils down to who can execute their skills the best (a little luck helps too).

HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING BOUT

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 29: Anthony Joshua (White Shorts) catches Wladimir Klitschko (Grey Shorts) with a right hand upper cut in the 11th round of their IBF, WBA and IBO Heavyweight World Title bout at Wembley Stadium on April 29, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Famous image: Joshua catches Klitschko with an upper cut.

A big heavyweight boxing clash between two brutes of the sport captures the imagination like no other contest.

Whether you’re supporting one side or the other, or are a complete neutral, the power of two giants hitting each other blow-by-blow makes you glued to the TV set. It must feel like you’re part of the action ring-side.

The thing with heavyweight boxing is you never know when that bout-ending uppercut (think Anthony Joshua against Wladimir Klitschko in April at Wembley Stadium) or a devastating left hook is going to come, that’s what really keeps you on edge.

It’s a feeling that few sports can replicate.

WAITING FOR START GUN IN 100M FINAL

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Usain Bolt of Jamaica points to the sky prior to the mens 100m final during day two of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 5, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Ramos/REMOTE/Getty Images)

100m stars line-up for the final in London on Saturday night.

When it comes down to the crunch in professional sport, a split second decision, right or wrong, or a moment of genius can decide the outcome.

For 100m sprinters this is perhaps exaggerated even more given years of training and dedication is boiled down to roughly 10 seconds – or even less if you get a false start and get disqualified from the race.

Mentally – knowing that everything is about that one very moment and nothing else – must be extremely difficult for world-class athletes.

In sprinting, especially, you don’t get too many cracks in what is a short career at securing a World Championship or indeed Olympic medal. Imagine if it doesn’t go to plan and you’ll left to rue a mistake out of the blocks for years? That’ll be too much for most.

Indeed, we felt the nerves just watching the final…and we were thousands of miles away at Sport360 HQ in Dubai on Saturday.

The wait for the starting pistol, and then “On your marks”, “Set”, probably feels like an eternity for the sprinters trackside.

Heart and adrenaline must be going into overdrive.

As we saw with the great Usain Bolt, if your start isn’t up to scratch if can affect you for the rest of the race.

It is without doubt one of the most difficult sporting actions to master.

SERVING FOR A WIMBLEDON TITLE

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: Croatian player Goran Ivanisevic celebrates after winning Men's Single Final against Patrick Rafter of Australia at the All England Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, 09 July 2001. Ivanisevic won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7. AFP PHOTO/GERRY PENNY (Photo credit should read GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images)

What a remarkable way to win Wimbledon: Ivanisevic.

For a tennis player – winning a Grand Slam, particularly Wimbledon, is the ultimate goal. Few people get the chance to achieve the ultimate – and if you do – you don’t want to blow it with a bundle of nerves.

After three previous Wimbledon final defeats, who could blame Goran Ivanisevic for feeling more than a few jitters when he had the chance to serve-out a five-set epic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-8* against Pat Rafter and win the SW19 crown for the first time.

Indeed, the Croatian fan favourite admitted he could barely feel his left-arm when sending down his famous serve.

Ivanisevic blew three match points and sent down two double faults, before finally winning a dramatic final game which lasted over five minutes. 9-7 in the fifth.

The video below does it more justice than words.

THE FINAL PUTT TO WIN A MAJOR

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 09: Sergio Garcia of Spain celebrates after defeating Justin Rose (not pictured) of England on the first playoff hole during the final round of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 9, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Sergio the Major: Garcia finally got that elusive Green Jacket in April.

Sergio Garcia made it look all too easy when he fired in a birdie putt on the final hole of his thrilling play-off victory over Justin Rose to win at the Augusta National Golf Club earlier this year.

While the Spaniard is one of the most experienced pros around, that putt was the difference between his first-ever major title victory or once again being labelled as the nearly man.

The mental toughness, concentration and coolness needed to slot away a winning putt like that takes guts and world-class skill.

Many players have blown huge chances before – Dustin Johnson a couple of years ago and Greg Norman way back in the 1990s springs to mind – which goes to show finishing the job when it comes to golf is far from easy.

You definitely don’t want a case of the yips.

PENALTY SHOOT-OUT AGONY

MOSCOW - MAY 21: John Terry of Chelsea misses a penalty during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Manchester United and Chelsea at the Luzhniki Stadium on May 21, 2008 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

A picture that Manchester United fans just love to see.

It doesn’t matter how good you are or have been as a player, a penalty shoot-out miss can really define you…especially as they normally come in big games.

While England fans know all too well about penalty failures down the years, is it unfair a talent like Roberto Baggio is arguably best remembered for his ballooned spot-kick which cost Italy the 1994 World Cup against Brazil?

Probably not – but unfortunately what you do in one kick from 12 yards carries with it a big weight of history, whether you score or miss.

Just ask John Terry.

For all the trophies in his cabinet, the ex-Chelsea skipper will forever be haunted by his slip-up in Moscow and how he blew the chance to gift the Blues a European Cup by the hair’s width of a post.

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