As the UAE take the World Cup stage, Emirati cricketers face a cultural process
Ahead of the World Cup opening ceremony, the International Cricket Council (ICC) put the captains from each of the teams into a booth to produce a promotional Vine for their social media campaign.
The UAE’s Mohammed Tauqir, who has a day job in a bank in Dubai, was front and centre, flanked by Misbah-ul-Haq, Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni. Cricket royalty, then.
It was the sort of thing he could tell the grandchildren about.
Or, at least, send a message home to wow the kids, something along the lines of: “Wish you were here?”
But his eldest son, Obaid, would probably have written back something like: “Whatever, Dad. Come back to me when it is Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Such is often the way in Emirati families. If the father’s passion is cricket, it is unusual, given the sport is widely seen as a game for expatriates.
Tauqir would like to bring Obaid, 11, Aisha, 8, and Omar, 5, to watch him captain their country in a World Cup.
But they are unlikely to get the time off school.
Plus Obaid might prefer to be watching Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema on the other channel, anyway.
“My eldest son is a hardcore Real Madrid fan,” Tauqir said. “He loves football. We went to the AC Milan game at The Sevens ground and we both enjoyed that. He is really into football.
“He is planning to watch me on the TV at the World Cup, though.”
Ahmed Jasim is a 17-year-old Emirati from Dubai. He is also a middle-order batsman and leg spinner, not a centre-forward.
“I hate football,” Jasim said. “My friends say to me that if I want to come and play, come and play. If I don’t, then go away.
“All Emiratis love football, but I love cricket. I love cricket more than anything.”
When asked who he will be supporting at the World Cup, old habits die hard. He says Australia, perhaps forgetting his own national team will be making a rare appearance.
He was eight years old when he started and learnt the game from watching TV, and playing with his dad.
“My dad loves watching cricket, and he used to play when he was younger,” Jasim said.
“I used to go along and watch him play, every day there were matches, and I would pick the game up from that.”
As a member of the Young Talents academy, where other Emirati players such as Alawi Shukri, Fahad Al Hashmi and Jasim Suwaidi learnt to play, he has toured Sri Lanka and England playing cricket.
“We have to make sure we maintain their interest in the game,” Shahzad Altaf, his coach, said of Emirati cricketers.
“We have to give them a chance if they come to play. Even if they are put in the team but don’t get the chance, they will lose interest. If you are selecting them, don’t make them sit out.”
There are two Emiratis in the 15-man World Cup squad, Tauqir and Al Hashmi.
Both came to the sport by chance, rather than as products of an organic development programme by the sport’s administrators here.
That has always been the way. Another talented Emirati player, Alawi Shukri, first learnt cricket from his Sri Lankan au pair.
He had wanted to know what all the fuss was about when all the staff at his family home were so ensconced by the weird sport on the TV during the 1996 World Cup.
Aaqib Javed, the UAE coach who won the World Cup with Pakistan in 1992, said a family link to the sport is crucial.
“Introducing cricket to Emiratis is not an easy one,” Aaqib said. “Cricket is a culture which you know from your home.
“The Emiratis we have, their cricket culture is from home because their mother is from either India or Pakistan.
“If you want cricket in their culture, mothers are the best ones to introduce it to their kids.”
Khalid Al Zarooni, the cricket-loving businessman behind Dubai Sports City, agreed but said the perception of the sport is changing with the demographics of the country.
“It is cultural,” Zarooni said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to play cricket.
“Now we are living in a different environment. The schools are more mixed, with children from different cultural backgrounds.
“What my friend likes and what I like will change. This is a long-term process, but if we do it right we will get there.”
For the first time, cricket has a genuine and believable project for attracting nationals to the sport with the announcement of the Emirati Development Programme last week.
In the past, administrators have spoken about the dream of 11 Emiratis in the national team. They were empty sentiments, though, with no genuine foundation or plan. Besides, that would hardly be representative of the country’s population.
Now, proper corporate funding, which will be ring-fenced and devoted exclusively to Emirati development, has been secured via a sponsorship deal with Al Ain Water.
The Emirates Cricket Board has set achievable goals, too. It wants 300 students at five Al Ain schools to get the chance to play the game in the first year.
It hopes to raise this to 1,000, across Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, within the three years of the initial sponsorship term.
Crucially, the funds they have received will hopefully extend to employing an Arabic-speaking development officer.
“A lot of players we are going to target will have never played cricket or have even heard of the game,” said Andy Russell, the national development officer, who is also one of the leading rugby players in the country.
“It is about introducing them to a game we love. We have a responsibility to develop them and develop a culture for cricket in this area.
“If we can build like rugby has in the past three years where we can have a sustainable playing force of Emiratis, that is a big goal for us.”
Why the need for new players? Cricket has been ticking along fairly well by relying on the ready flow of expatriate players.
A world ranking of No 14 and two World Cup qualifications, admittedly 19 years apart, is a record of which many sports would be envious.
According to Tim Anderson, the ICC global development manager, having indigenous involvement at a sport’s core is “fundamental” to it flourishing.
He said it makes governmental support more likely and reduces the sport’s reliance on handouts from administrative bodies like the ICC.
Plus writing off a chunk of a population on account of old perceptions about whether they will like a sport or not automatically limits the potential player pool.
“You want to try to access 100 per cent of your population,” Anderson said. “You want to have a national team that is reflective of your nation.
“Most of the cricket that has been played here in the past has been played by people from the Asian subcontinent.
“It is arguable that is reflective of the current population, but I think it is absolutely fundamental to the sustainable development of cricket here that there are more and more Emiratis playing the game.”
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Published: February 15, 2015 04:00 AM