UAE’s leading cricketers could be forgiven for watching on with envy as their neighbours in Oman started their home World Cup in rampant fashion on Sunday.
Even more so given the way Aqib Ilyas took to the world stage so adeptly, in making a cool half-century in the 10-wicket win over Papua New Guinea. His former colleagues in the UAE might have felt as though he was living their life for them.
The 29-year-old all-rounder studied civil engineering in Dubai from 2010. In the four years he lived in UAE, he excelled in domestic cricket to the extent he was invited to train with the national team.
He was flattered, but his heart remained in Oman, where he had lived since he was six months old.
“There was a thought in my mind that I should [stay and play as a pro in UAE], but at that time I wasn’t that into cricket,” Ilyas said.
“I just used to go and play in open tournaments. When I came back to Oman, I didn’t play for one year.
“My brother [former Oman player Adnan] said, ‘You should play, you have the potential to do very well’.
“That boosted me, and made me want to represent the Oman team. My family is in Oman. That is why I wanted to play for them and not UAE.”
The lure of home must have been strong, as there was a vast disparity in opportunities for cricketers in UAE and Oman at the time.
UAE domestic cricketers routinely get to play at the three venues which are hosting the T20 World Cup.
By contrast, when Ilyas left for his studies, there was not one grass oval in Oman yet. He has never questioned his decision, though, and is reaping the rewards now.
“My parents sent me to Dubai, saying it would be good for studies, and told me how I should learn to live on my own and that it would be good for my future,” Ilyas said.
“For my cricket, it was a very positive experience. Many international players were there, the likes of [Pakistan international] Yasir Shah, Asad Shafiq.
“I brought that positivity with me back to Oman. By the time I got back to Oman there were two turf grounds here, and the standard of club cricket was very strong.
“Facing players like Bilal Khan and Kaleemullah every day means you improve over time, plus we have good coaches who improve our technique.”
“His brother Adnan was the most talented player Oman has ever had in the national team,” said Pankaj Khimji, the chairman of Oman Cricket.
“He played some scintillating knocks, all over the world. Aqib is even more talented, and even more technically sound.
“He is a little laid back — David Gower-esque — but is a beautiful timer of the ball. He has an excellent temperament when he gets going.”
Ilyas is producing the results to go with the talent, too. He averages 62 in 15 one-day internationals so far and, last year in Kathmandu, he scored centuries in successive ODIs.
Now he wants to make a name for himself on the biggest platform he has yet been given.
Oman face Bangladesh on Wednesday night in Al Amerat, and a win would go a long way to securing their advance to the next phase of competition — meaning a potential trip back to UAE for Ilyas.
“I want to do really well at the World Cup,” he said. “The whole world is watching you, and your talent is exposed.”