Inside Story: UAE maidens set sights on the World Cup

Denzil Pinto 08:30 10/01/2017
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Building on their success: The UAE women’s team.

The UAE women’s cricket team might have fallen short at last month’s International T20 Cup but the fact they reached the final shows how far they have come since being bowled out for nine in their very first game a decade ago.

Back in July 2007, a new chapter was opened for the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), who took the step of launching their female national team to play in the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) tournament in Malaysia.

Bangladesh were their first opposition but there was no warm welcome from the subcontinent side, who were ruthless in giving the UAE a harsh lesson in international cricket.

Under the captaincy of 12-year-old Natasha Michael, seven batswomen were sent back to the pavilion without even making a run, while Tahira Akbar was their top-scorer with three. It only needed 1.2 overs for Bangladesh to reach their 10-run target.

“We kind of swept that result under the rug,” recalled Michael, now 22, who still remains in the current squad after studying in India for three years. “They were eye openers for us of what to expect. We were really excited as it was our very first game and plus we had no expectations.

“We hadn’t played internationally, let alone in terms of a domestic league. For sure, it was a shock and I don’t think I’ve ever heard figures like that for any team. We just pushed ourselves after that to ensure that was behind us.”

Despite their brave attempts, it did not get any brighter for Michael & Co, ending their campaign with consecutive losses against China and Singapore.

That squad consisted of mainly youths, who competed in inter-school tournaments and players at Sharjah Academy while the rest were made up of older players.

Little was expected given there was no domestic structure in place for girls to test themselves while their intense two-month training camp under the guidance of former Indian all-rounder and coach Smitha Harikrishna was the closest they came to experiencing match situations.

But for the ECB, this was going to be just the start of their journey.

“We at the ECB were never disappointed [with that tournament] and it can happen with any team,” said ECB administrator Mazhar Khan. “We always had confidence that they would go on and do well in this game.”

Occasionally, the ECB had to go back to the drawing board for upcoming tournaments, picking new faces with players either leaving the country or turning their back to the game. Their cause wasn’t helped with irregular training routines with intense camps announced only prior to competitions.

“As cricket wasn’t our main job, some people had to go to work or school,” said Michael. “A lot of people didn’t come; it wasn’t because they didn’t want to, it was because they couldn’t as they had other commitments. When it came to training, our fitness used to be a problem as we didn’t have regular training sessions and there was no continuous flow.”

The lack of exposure of the girls’ game was also beginning to show with current skipper Humaira Tasneem, who has been a UAE regular since 2008, admitting she didn’t know much about the team.

“I didn’t even know about their very first tournament in Malaysia and never knew there was a women’s national team in the UAE,” said the 22-year-old.

“I played in the inter-school tournament and trained at Sharjah Academy and that’s when Mohammad Haider [current UAE coach] asked me if I wanted to join.”

For current coach Haider, who has been with the team as an assistant since 2008, he has had to convince parents to let their children play in order to form a team.

“We only had a few girls and did not even have enough to make a full-time squad,” he recalls. “I was begging the parents for them to play so that we could play in a competition.”

The ECB had to bide their time to finally taste victory, two years to be exact, after no senior tournament in 2008. The 49-run triumph over Oman in the ACC Women’s T20 Championship was followed with more positive results against Kuwait and Iran en-route to a seventh-place finish.

That was as good as it got for them in terms of overall finishes with consecutive ninth-place finishes in the ACC competitions in 2011 and 2013.

Fast forward to today and they are now two-time defending Gulf Cup champions after their triumphs in 2014 and 2015. The feats sit among their best achievements and have certainly raised their profile in the country.

Following that success in Kuwait and Qatar, Dubai Cricket Council (DCC) launched their Ladies’ League last year with the ECB following suit.

“It was purely because of our chairman Abdul Rahman Falknaz and his initiative to start this and there are no entry fees for the teams,” said Shiva Pagarani, member of the DCC. “We want to promote cricket and give them opportunities to play against each other because it’s difficult for them to get match practice anywhere else.”

The UAE have also been fortunate to train with professional internationals including Australia’s World Cup winner Ellyse Perry during Sydney Sixers and Thunders’ pre-season camp in June.

While that and the domestic events have been significant in the development, the ECB went even further and hosted a tournament on home soil. Many of the UAE players had never played in home conditions and they got the chance to do so in December in the seven-team International T20 Cup.

African nations Kenya and Uganda joined neighbours Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Malaysia and the hosts, providing the chance for the UAE to add to their Gulf titles.

While the squad was still young, there was plenty of experience with all-rounder Subha Srinivasan among those who played first-class cricket in India, while Michael played in Karnataka.

Medium pacer Samiya Salim, who made her debut aged 13, was also named. Haider’s side enjoyed a fine run to the final, including a historic victory over Kenya.

But the African side gained revenge in the championship decider to reign supreme. Although they were left disappointed, there’s a belief that something big could happen in the future.

“The girls are ready and are very keen to play in the World Cup because for any person it’s the pinnacle of sport but we need regular training sessions for that to happen,” said Haider.

Michael and Tasneem both agree that remains a target and the ECB remain optimistic their finest hour could still come.

Khan said: “The way the national team has improved since it was launched has been nothing short than amazing.

“I remember at one time, they used to bowl 30 or 40 wides in T20s and now there’s not much which shows how much they’ve improved.

“The target is to open the doors to the World Cup and our intention at the ECB is is to give them a lot more cricket matches and improve their quality of play,” he added.

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