Cricket fans in the UAE can look forward to top-quality cricket when the Desert T20 gets under way Saturday without even paying a single dirham.
Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Oman, Hong Kong, Namibia and hosts UAE are all set to feature in the six-day tournament in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the sides looking to claim the inaugural crown.
Each day boasts double headers, with every match until Tuesday at Sheikh Zayed Stadium with the tournament moving to Dubai International Stadium from Wednesday until Friday’s Finals day. Group matches begin at 14:00 and 19:00 with the Finals day kicking off from 10:00 with both semi-finals and the final.
Dubbed as the ‘Mini World Cup’ for Associates, the names set to take to the field are impressive with Ireland skipper William Porterfield, Kevin O’Brien, big-hitter Mohammed Shahzad of Afghanistan and UAE captain Amjad Javed set to feature.
The UAE face a stern task to qualify from their group having been drawn alongside Afghanistan, Ireland and Namibia in Group A. Owais Shah’s side will fancy their chances of reigning supreme on home soil despite being ranked below both Afghanistan and Ireland. Last year, the hosts registered their first victory over the Irish in 15 years in this format before following it up with a comprehensive win against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup qualifiers.
Although Shah’s side ended 2016 on a losing note with a 3-0 T20I series whitewash at the hands of Afghanistan, they have a chance to get back to winning ways against Namibia in their opener on Sunday evening.
In Group B, Netherlands are the highest ranked side in 11th but they will be wary of Scotland (13th) Oman (16th) and Hong Kong (14th) vie for the top two spots.
Given the popularity of the game and the quality of matches on the agenda, Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), which is hosting the competition, insists it’s an opportunity not to miss for any cricket fan.
“There are top Associate nations competing including Scotland, Ireland and Afghanistan and I think it will be very competitive games and hopefully very soon, one of these nations will become a Test-playing nation as well,” said Mazhar Khan, ECB administrator.
“There is a lot of talented players in these countries. As it’s a T20, it’s a shorter version and it will be good for cricket fans in the UAE to watch these good cricketers and support the UAE team. It will be good to watch some great matches on our doorstep.”
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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.
For more than 13 years, Owais Shah has let the bat do the talking, whether it was on the international stage or in a premier T20 tournament.
And with his playing days now numbered, the former England and Middlesex batsman is passing on his experience and knowledge as the UAE interim coach.
Having been in the position since October, Shah caught up with Sport360 at the ICC Academy this month to talk about how he’s enjoying his new role, what he wants to implement and some of his cricketing memories.
You’ve been in charge of the UAE national team for a few weeks now. Considering this is your first coaching job, how are you enjoying it?
I’m loving it. I enjoy working with cricketers, working with talented guys and showing them of being tactical aware of things. I want them to improve and start thinking about the game but I’m quite happy so far.
When was the first time you saw the UAE play?
It was during the World Cup in 2015. It was an eye-opener for me that UAE were playing World Cup cricket which was really good. It was a great achievement to qualify for the World Cup. Hats off to them and they did well in the past.
But that’s in the past and we got to look at what we are going now in the future and produce results and get back to winning ways.
What do you want to achieve from this role?
I would like them to improve and get back to winning ways and improve the individuals here. Whether that’s in batting, bowling or fielding, or just thinking about the game.
What are the main challenges for you?
It’s like any nation. There are a few challenges. The facilities are definitely not one of them and we have amazing facilities over here. I guess having the availability of players all the time would be good but it is what it is. With the ECB introducing central contracts, we should in say eight to 12 months, see an improvement, a drastic improvement. If you’re practising skills day in day out, in theory you should get better.
You’ve been here for nearly three months. What improvements need to be made in UAE cricket?
There’s a lot. We need to have more domestic cricket so there’s a bigger pool of players to choose from and regular tournaments. The main focus of UAE cricket is in T20 and that means there’s hardly any 50-over cricket being played. How are we going to get better if we don’t play any 50-over cricket?
You were also a professional cricketer. How important is it for UAE cricketers to understand about professionalism in the game?
Everything you do is being professional, whether that’s eating right, sleeping right, turning up for time – that’s just off-field stuff. Wearing the correct kit and footwear and being on time, that’s what you call professional.
What have you learnt from your playing days that you want to implement?
What I learnt is that there is not just one way of doing things, there are a lot of ways to do things. Travelling the world and playing cricket shows you different techniques, cultures and different ways.
I would like to draw on those experiences and give the guys options here. It’s not just about producing results, if you want to do it your way that’s not a problem, it’s all about the results.
It’s a beautiful game and I would love to see them have opportunities around the world. That will only happen if they improve their game and start producing results. Some key elements are like characteristics and mental toughness.
You play against tough players and opponents who are flamboyant and you have to extract all those qualities to help these guys.
Your contract ends at the end of January. Are you hoping it will be extended?
I would like to. The answer to that question lies with the selectors.
With your playing days numbered, is coaching now the future for you?
If the opportunity came along like this then I would love to do this.
Have you found coaching difficult to what you had expected it to be?
There are different aspects which are difficult and different aspects which are easy to relate to. Nothing is going to be easy in life so you have to work hard at it, get to grips at different things and produce stuff your way.
Every coach has their own way of coaching. What is your philosophy?
Mine is to make decisions what is the best for the team. If that means if everyone hates me, then so be it. But I will do everything that’s in the best interests of UAE cricket and I don’t care if I upset anyone. If I sleep at night knowing I’ve done the best for the UAE team, then it’s good.
Was that something you learnt when you were playing?
That’s how my parents brought me up by doing the right thing. I’m not going to do any favours to anyone but just do the right thing.
You haven’t officially retired but if any club offered you a deal, would you consider it?
I’m getting old now (he’s 38) but I don’t know and have to see.
You’ve played around the world in some big T20 competitions. What were the ones that stood out for you?
The Big Bash and IPL. The atmosphere, the whole country buzz, television coverage and atmosphere in the games is amazing. Those two countries know who to do T20 cricket.
How do you look back at your England career?
I enjoyed playing for England and I wish I had more opportunities in the longer format but it just didn’t work out that way. There are no regrets, I would have liked to play a bit more and only got a handful of opportunities in Test cricket. In one-day cricket I thought I was playing well until I got dropped but that’s the way it is.
Who was your favourite coach you worked under and why?
It has to be Richard Pybus. I enjoyed working with him in his very short stint at Middlesex. I also worked under him with Cape Cobras. His man management skills were very good and read the game quite well. I think his management of players was his best quality he had.