Representing the UAE national team is not a dream universally held by all aspiring young cricketers in the Emirates, let alone Pakistan.
The lure of a player’s country of origin often supersedes that of the one in which they reside. Not least because the opportunities afforded to players in cricket’s mainstream are so much greater than those – such as UAE – who are vying for attention from the game’s elite.
All of which makes the case of Usman Khan a curious one. The 28-year-old opener grabbed the limelight on one of cricket’s most significant stages earlier this year when he blazed the fastest century in Pakistan Super League history.
His 36-ball showpiece for Multan Sultans against Quetta Gladiators led to speculation that he might be on the brink of a call up for Pakistan.
They were, after all, just about to name an experimental side – with the likes of openers Babar Azam and Mohammed Rizwan rested – for a three-match T20 series against Afghanistan in Sharjah, which is his home ground.
And yet the prospect did not interest him. Instead he remained focused on qualifying to play for the UAE.
It is hoped he will be eligible for selection, based on the ICC’s three-year residency criteria, later this year, notwithstanding the time he has spent outside the country playing competitions such as PSL and the Bangladesh Premier League.
His ultimate aim is to play an international match against the country for his birth, and excel against them.
“In Pakistan I felt like nobody was looking to me and I wasn’t getting a chance, so I wanted to go somewhere else for an opportunity,” Usman said. “I came to UAE and have worked hard. I just want to work hard then try to make the UAE team once I am eligible.
“When corona[virus] happened, cricket went down in Pakistan and no-one was asking me to play. I decided to move to UAE for my cricket.
“My dream is not to play for Pakistan. My dream is to play for UAE. I am working hard to do that. One day I want to play against Pakistan to show them my talent. I am waiting for my time.”
Usman’s hopes of making it with UAE might have been dashed before they had even really begun, when he lost his job with his first employers around a year after arriving from Pakistan.
His talent had been clear for all to see in domestic cricket, and his peers did not want him to depart. Rameez Shahzad, the UAE batter, tipped off his father, Shahzad Altaf, about Usman’s situation.
Altaf recruited him to play for his own A-Division side, the Warriors, on the premise that he trains at his academy, too. The thinking being that Usman could also help out the young academicians at Goltay Cricket Academy in Hor Al Anz, Dubai.
“Rameez told me he was a very talented cricketer,” Altaf said. “We hired him, he played [Abu Dhabi] T10, did very well, and after that the door was open for him.”
Usman excelled in Abu Dhabi T10, and has made centuries in each of the PSL and BPL. Undoubtedly, it was that blitz for Multan against Quetta – an innings which included 12 fours and nine sixes – back in March which made his name.
“At 3.30pm I got a message from [coach] Andy Flower telling me I was playing,” Usman said. “I thought that was the best chance for me. If I could not get the runs that day, maybe the door would be closed for me.
“As we went out to bat, Rizwan told me to play my natural game. I said to him that first I have to settle, then I will play my game. I watched a couple of balls, then went for it.
Usman is grateful to Haider Azhar, the Multan Sultans COO, and Flower for their support. He is hopeful he will be retained by them even after the point he is no longer considered a local player, and will take up an overseas player place in their roster.
“When I got that hundred, Haider and Andy Flower told me they would help me play in other leagues, too,” Usman said. “Andy has worked so hard with me, and I am very grateful to him. He has helped me hit at a strike-rate of 200, and has told me he will try for me in other leagues, too.”
While the audience might have been some way short of the millions which follow PSL telecasts, Usman enjoyed more small screen fame earlier this month.
Playing for Sharjah in the Emirates D50, a competition involving the leading players in the country which was livestreamed online, he made a double-century – just as he predicted he would.
“When I spoke to Andy [Russell, the national development manager for UAE cricket], I said I would make a double hundred,” Usman said.
“After I made 150 [in an earlier match], Andy said, ‘You still haven’t made 200.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, there are still four matches left, I will do it.’ Luckily, I did.”