What is ailing the UAE’s national cricket team?

UAE cricket is left with more questions than answers after listless series loss to Scotland

The UAE were bowled out for a record low score of 62 all out in their 32-run defeat to Scotland in Dubai on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Photo: Emirates Cricket
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There were so many reasons to be optimistic about UAE cricket. Judged on the performances of the national team at present, though, you wouldn’t know it.

The UAE missed out on qualification for three World Cups last year: the T20 one, ODI, and at Under-19 level.

And yet, given the way the age-group side finished the year, with wins over Pakistan and Sri Lanka in a home Asia Cup, it was still possible to enter 2024 feeling upbeat about life.

But all the hope has been dissipated at a stroke after a winless Cricket World Cup League 2 tri-series involving Scotland and Canada, then a capitulation in a bilateral T20I series against the former.

On Thursday night, after the bowlers had put a series win within reach, the batters capitulated as the UAE posted their lowest ever total in full international cricket.

A lack of experience won't wash as an excuse. The two bowlers who did the damage for Scotland, Brad Currie and Jack Jarvis, were playing just their seventh and second T20Is respectively.

So why have the UAE been so far off the pace? The reasons are many.

For a start, the lead-in to their return to national duty was less than optimal.

The DP World International League T20 was a vastly improved product when it returned for its second season at the start of this year. But has it had a positive impact on the fortunes of the national team just yet? The numbers suggest not.

The UAE have lost 34 out of 56 matches since the advent of the ILT20 in 2023, with a win rate of just 39 per cent. In a similar timeframe leading up to the first season of the competition, they lost 20 of 41 matches, with a win rate of 50 per cent.

For all the benefits of spending weeks with leading cricketers from abroad, the ILT20 offers sparse playing opportunities for home-based players.

The competition started with just two spots available for UAE players per XI. That was diluted further by two rule changes ahead of the new season.

Players who are yet to be eligible for national team selection were permitted to play. The likes of Mohammed Rohid, Haider Ali and Usman Khan were picked and thrived. Yet none are close to being available for the UAE.

Plus, there was the introduction of the super sub rule. Adding another batter or bowler per innings only served to diminish the already unfancied UAE players still further.

For example, it meant Ali Naseer, one of the brightest young talents in the game – and not just in the UAE – was limited to five overs bowled and 68 balls faced in the competition for Desert Vipers. He still managed to top their batting averages.

And after all that, he had to return to university in the UK rather than stay on for national duty, as he had missed so much time while at the ILT20.

Of the players who were picked for the UAE for the series against Scotland and Canada, some profited from the ILT20. Muhammad Waseem, who is well established as a leading force in T20 cricket, faced 217 balls across the tournament. Alishan Sharafu batted against 183 balls for AD Knight Riders.

But each of them faced more balls than the rest of the batters in the UAE line up combined: Tanish Suri (2), Aryan Lakra (5), Rahul Chopra (40), Basil Hameed (30), and Ashwanth Valthapa, who was not involved in the second season of ILT20.

All of which should not excuse the failings of batters who seem all too willing to hide behind the excellence of Waseem.

Even the man himself realises it. “I don’t want [it to be like] this, but it does feel that if I go early my team is under pressure,” the captain said after it was put to him that the team relies overly on him. “In the coming tournaments, I have to handle this.”

Which is about the worst result possible. Waseem is at his best when he bats with freedom, not when the burden of an entire team is on his shoulders. If he goes into his shell during the ACC Premier Cup in Muscat next month, the UAE have no chance of making it to the Asia Cup.

It really should not be all about him. As Waseem has been repeating ad nauseum himself, the batters all need to step up.

Are the best ones all on the park? There are certainly many who remain conspicuous by their absence.

The night before the Scotland series started, Asif Khan hit a double century in a T20 game in domestic cricket at the ICC Academy. Rohan Mustafa – when chances permitted – showed he has still got it during the ILT20.

And Vriitya Aravind was like a ghost at the wake during the Scotland series. He was there, but limited to carrying drinks and bats, rather than using them himself.

It is an uncomfortable sight. Four years have been invested in Aravind. He can’t be allowed to wither on the vine.

He was initially left out of their tour to Nepal at the end of last year. Yet he ended it as such an integral part of the side they fielded him for the crucial match even though he barely had use of his right hand after suffering injury while batting the game before.

Again, doubts seemingly persist. He was stood down from opening game of the Cricket World Cup League 2 series, only to then be brought back in and make a 50.

For the T20 series against Scotland he was left out of all three matches. That is more than enough time to ponder his running-between-the-wicket foibles.

Of those who were picked, there needs to be a greater hunger to be the star, and to show Waseem is not the only hero.

During his international career to date, Waseem has been player of the match eight times in 95 games.

Some of the youngsters have shown being a matchwinner is not beyond them. Aravind, 21, for example, has won four such awards – all, perhaps tellingly, within four months in the middle of 2022 – in 105 games.

Naseer, 20, has three player-of-the-match awards in 28 matches to date, with the remarkable Aayan Khan, 18, having six to his name in the 55 international games he has played for UAE.

The UAE need more from the peers of those guys. Sharafu, for example, captained both Naseer and Aayan at U19 level, and was regarded as the most destructive batter in his cohort.

He showed his capabilities with a remarkable take down of a bowling attack including Shaheen Afridi, Mohammed Amir, Shadab Khan and Tymal Mills in the ILT20.

And yet at senior national team level, he has yet to fire. He has still to win a match award, despite having played 37 times for the national team.

The same goes for Aryan Lakra. The match award cupboard is bare for a player who captained an excellent UAE U19s side, and has now played 26 times for the senior team.

When Waseem says they need to step up, he means make yourself a hero. It is not beyond any of them, but they need to prove it, fast.

Updated: March 16, 2024, 7:32 AM