From pit of despair to the global stage: UAE cricket’s fairytale

A new team was born out of the corruption crisis of 2019. Now the bold young side are heading to the T20 World Cup

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Let’s not understate this: UAE’s qualification for the T20 World Cup is a cricket fairytale.

From the pit of despair, ravaged by corruption, a crisis that has now seen seven senior players thrown out of the sport for a combined total of 49 years. To this. The global stage. And a chance, finally, to show the good face of UAE cricket.

All in the space of two-and-a-half years. A span of time in which all the hard work done by a persevering group of players has frequently been undermined by the outcomes of anti-corruption hearings.

The last UAE player to be chucked out of cricket for corruption was as recently as December. Waheed Ahmed was suspended for eight years for contriving to fix aspects of domestic matches.

Ironically, he had been one of the players enlisted for the national team to cover for the first three who were thrown out, at the 2019 World Cup Qualifier, back when all the problems first started.

The national team’s resilience at rolling with the punches in the time since has been extraordinary. Now it is they, not the cheats, who will enjoy the fruits of a trip to Australia to mix with the sport’s best.

Who is to thank for all this? Ahmed Raza, the dutiful captain, was quick to praise the backroom staff for their part in it.

When Robin Singh was appointed as director of cricket in 2020, the first thing he said was he wanted his teams playing in World Cups.

The Under 19 side already have. With distinction, too, beating two Test nations to win the plate tournament in the Caribbean earlier this month.

The women’s team are into a global qualifier of their own. And now the senior men’s side are through to the T20 version at the first time of asking on his watch.

The second thing he said after arriving was that he does not just want his sides competing when they get there. He wants big scalps.

It was telling that, while his players were basking in the warm glow of achievement after beating Nepal on Tuesday, he was already thinking about which will be suited to conditions in Australia and which will not. The subtext was clear: there will be places on the plane available to the most deserving.

But more than anyone else, the people who have brought about the transformation have been the players. Those left over after the crisis. Those for whom wearing the grey of the national team might – for a while – have felt somewhat less than the privilege it is supposed to.

People like Chirag Suri, a player who received so much so young – a place in the senior team before he was ready, a trip to the IPL before it was merited – but who has grown up in times of trouble. Now 27, he is a pillar of the side and captain in waiting.

Like Vriitya Aravind, who was excused lessons at school to bolster the squad at the 2019 Qualifier. Who missed a psychology exam to make his UAE debut. Who was struck a fearful blow on the head in one of his first games – then proceeded to launch the next ball out of the ground for six.

And who is, it turns out, a little bit extraordinary at cricket. The leading run-scorer at the Qualifier so far, a shoo-in for player of the tournament, and, maybe one day, he will actually return to his university lectures, too.

Then there is Rohan Mustafa, the arch competitor for whom life has rarely run smooth. Whose five minutes of online fame was actually a moment of infamy, when he was lampooned for a wardrobe malfunction in front of the TV cameras at the Abu Dhabi T10.

UAE's Ahmed Raza with his player-of-the-match award for his performance against Nepal. Subas Humagain for The National

Nobody gives more to the national team than he does. He does it all to honour his late father. How proud Mustafa Kamal would have been that his son could be set to become the first UAE cricketer to play at three World Cups.

And then there is Raza. The captain who provided the safest pair of hands when the game was falling apart back in 2019.

The 33-year-old spinner from Sharjah must be up there now with the most important people in the history of UAE cricket.

Up there with Abdulrahman Bukhatir, the Sharjah businessman without whom the sport might not have made it to the Emirates at all – certainly not in the form it is today.

And Khalid Al Zarooni, the president of Dubai Sports City who has been a driving force behind making Dubai a world centre for cricket.

Up there, too, with Sultan Zarawani, the captain, inspiration and patron of the first UAE side to make it to a World Cup, back in 1996.

Plus Khurram Khan, Raza’s role model and surely still the best player ever to wear UAE colours, who captained the side to qualification for World Cups in T20 in 2014 and one-dayers a year later.

And now, Raza. The guy who, still scarcely believably, was banned for two months for essentially showing that he cared, when he criticised the facilities at a tournament in Pakistan in 2018.

Someone who lives and breathes UAE cricket more than anyone else. A national representative as man and boy. A player who started national duty as a pudgy teenager, and is now a good 10kgs lighter, if a few grey hairs heavier.

And a captain who has a World Cup to plan for.

Updated: February 23, 2022, 7:58 AM