Asia Cup 2022 will be a celebration even if UAE are watching from sidelines yet again

Stars of world game set to shine in Dubai and Sharjah – where the tournament was born 38 years ago

India captain Rohit Sharma celebrates with the trophy after his team defeated Bangladesh in the final of the 2018 Asia Cup in Dubai. AFP
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The bus back from Muscat to Dubai must have been a morose place to be on Thursday morning.

Pondering the beauty of the Hajjar Mountains would almost certainly have given way to more gloomy thoughts for the players of the UAE national team.

Like, just how have we managed to pass up the chance to play at a major tournament in our own backyard for the third time in four years?

The Asia Cup has gone the same way it did back in 2018, and the way of the T20 World Cup of 2021.

When it starts at Dubai International Stadium on Saturday night, Wanindu Hasaranga and Rashid Khan will be there.

A day later, Babar Azam and Haris Rauf will be taking on Virat Kohli and all the other household names of the Indian Premier League.

The stars of the world game will shine brightly under the ring of fire floodlights. It is going to be a captivating show between now and the final on Sunday September 11.

But, yet again, the leading players of the host nation will be ghosts at their own feast.

Four years ago, it was Hong Kong who denied them a place in their home Asia Cup, on a stormy day in the final match of the qualifier in Malaysia.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - September 23, 2018: Pakistan's Babar Azam bats during the game between India and Pakistan in the Asia cup. Sunday, September 23rd, 2018 at Sports City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

A year later, UAE were the second highest ranked side in a tournament that offered five places to the next T20 World Cup.

As it turned out, that ended up being played in the Emirates two years later because of the effects of Covid. It passed off without the UAE, though, their hopes having been lanced by a corruption crisis that has since seen seven senior players banned.

This time around, UAE were the best-ranked side in the qualifying tournament, a full 11 places higher in the standings than the next best, Hong Kong.

But a team who had been purring the last time they had played a T20 tournament in Muscat now looked entirely fractured.

Their captain was changed on the day of the trip to the tournament. After a shock loss to Kuwait, the country’s two most capped players were then jettisoned from the side altogether.

Seeing Ahmed Raza and Rohan Mustafa – each ex-captains – sat in the dugout in high-viz bibs rather than out in the heat of battle was painful to watch.

They have been fixtures of the side for a decade, two players who have been UAE internationals as man and boy.

Classmates born three days apart, who were inspired to be international cricketers by watching games just a six-hit away from their school in Sharjah.

How fitting it would have been if they were heading back to their home town to feature in a major tournament.

Sharjah Cricket Stadium, after all, is back hosting a competition which it birthed, back in 1984.

The country’s oldest cricket venue will stage four fixtures in the competition, including Pakistan v Hong Kong – rather than UAE – on Friday September 2.

Hong Kong celebrate a wicket during their Asia Cup Qualifier win against UAE in Muscat. Courtesy ACC

While the absence of the home team will be keenly felt, the return of the Asia Cup to Sharjah is rightly being celebrated.

Abdulrahman Bukhatir, who did so much to establish the sport in the Middle East as the founder of Sharjah Cricket Stadium, played a central role in starting the competition, too.

“The initiative begun in 1984 has paid off and I see it as one of my most satisfying achievements,” Bukhatir said last week.

Now Bukhatir’s son, Khalaf, is chief executive at the stadium. He is delighted to be welcoming back the Asia Cup.

“Life has really come full circle and we are so excited to be hosting the Asia Cup once again in 2022,” Khalaf said.

“Our stadium is globally renowned for breaking records, having the best fans and the most exciting finishes and I imagine this tournament will be no different.”

India and Pakistan train in Dubai

Updated: August 29, 2022, 7:32 AM