UAE cricket looks to future after curious case of Usman Khan

National team prepare for next challenge without Pakistan Super League star, starting with ACC Premier Cup in Oman

Usman Khan's performances for Multan Sultans in the Pakistan Super League earned him a call-up to Pakistan's T20 squad. AFP
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The UAE will take their first steps in the post-Usman Khan era when they begin the ACC Premier Cup in Muscat on Friday.

Which is such an odd statement. Usman never played a game for the national team. He was over a year away from even being available for consideration at all.

And yet there was uproar in UAE cricket when he decided against completing his eligibility criteria and throwing in his lot with Pakistan instead.

Now he has been banned from playing in any UAE-sanctioned competitions for the next five years by the Emirates Cricket Board.

“After a detailed investigation, Usman was found to have misrepresented to ECB about his decision to play for the UAE team,” they wrote in a statement.

“[He] has used the opportunities and development provided by the ECB to him to seek out other prospects and it was evident he was no longer wanting to play for ECB nor complete the eligibility criteria which he was under an obligation to do.”

Usman heard of his punishment in absentia. He has yet to return to Dubai since the end of the Pakistan Super League, in which his extraordinary performances for Multan Sultans, the eventual runners-up, saw him named batter of the tournament.

He was enlisted in a training camp with 25 of the best players in Pakistan run by the army in Abbottabad, and is likely to debut in their T20 series against New Zealand later this month. While he was over there, he informed the ECB of his intention to discontinue his attempts to qualify for the UAE on residency grounds.

Even if he had not yet played for the national team, it goes without saying they are losing a player of great substance. And one who did for years harbour real ambitions to play for his adopted country.

“My dream is not to play for Pakistan,” Usman told The National last year. “My dream is to play for UAE. I am working hard to do that. One day I want to play against Pakistan to show them my talent. I am waiting for my time.”

And yet his time has come too soon for the UAE.

Usman’s intentions were sincere. To have cooked up some elaborate ploy to mislead anyone, just to secure a big pay day in the ILT20, for example, would have required the skills of a soothsayer.

He first stated his intention to play for the UAE back in 2021, a few months after leaving Pakistan when opportunities to play dried up during the Covid pandemic.

The ILT20 was not on any player’s radar at that point, and he was grateful to get released to play in domestic cricket at that stage, with no aspirations beyond that.

Yes, his intentions were money orientated. Namely, to support his family by any means possible. His aims were modest, which is why he took a job in the purchasing department of a gas distribution company in Sharjah in the first place.

Luckily for him, the boss of the company was a big cricket fan. He gave him all the time off he required to play for the staff cricket team, who were one of the leading corporate sides in the UAE at the time.

When that side folded, Usman was let go, but he maintained a residence visa thanks to Goltay Cricket Academy. That meant no disruption in his period of residency.

His period of qualification was interrupted, though, by the amount of time he spent out of the UAE due to cricket commitments.

ICC residency rules require that a player has their permanent home in the adopted country for a period of three years prior to them playing for the new national team. That means being able to demonstrate a “close, credible and established link with the country”.

Crucially in Usman’s case, the criteria also demand “as a minimum requirement, on aggregate, at least 10 months actual physical presence in the relevant country in each of the three years”.

He failed to meet that requirement, not least because of the time he spent playing for Quetta Gladiators then Multan Sultans in the PSL, as well as in the Bangladesh Premier League.

The ECB applied to the ICC for consideration in Usman’s case on account of “exceptional circumstances” but were rebuffed.

So, instead of qualifying to represent the UAE in September of 2023, as he had hoped, his start date was instead put back until mid-2025.

Although it does bear pointing out that even if he had been fast-tracked into the UAE side as scheduled last year, that would still not have ruled him out of contention for being selected by Pakistan.

A player can switch from an associate member nation – in this case the UAE – to a full member like Pakistan with no notice period. But to go in the other direction requires another three-year cooling off period.

For example, the UAE might be delighted that they have someone of the capabilities of the magnificent Mohammed Waseem opening the batting for them. Also, they are probably not overly distraught that circumstances have dictated he has not – yet – had a chance to play at the PSL.

If he did so, and showed his full repertoire of skill, he too might be having his loyalties to the national team tested by the Pakistan selectors. All of which is, of course, hypothetical for now.

While the delay in his eligibility was frustrating for everybody, not least Usman, the ECB at least showed a commitment to him by offering him a retainer to stay, a contract worth Dh2,000 per month.

Then an avenue to the ILT20 unexpectedly opened up, too. This is another crucial point in the Usman story, and the likely reason the ECB’s punishment was so swingeing.

Ahead of the second season of the T20 competition, ILT20 introduced a rule permitting home-based players who are not yet UAE-qualified to play as local players. The only stipulation was that the players must confirm their intention to play for the UAE as soon as they are eligible.

There are two places per starting line up reserved for UAE players in the ILT20. Those berths are keenly sought after. The new rule meant they were at an even greater premium this season.

Usman’s capabilities meant he was a shoo-in for one of the contracts. His deal at Gulf Giants, where he was reunited with his former Multan Sultans coach Andy Flower, was said to be in the region of $50,000.

It bears pointing out at this stage that the ECB neither own the ILT20, nor pay the wages of the players involved. Yet, as the national federation, they are the sanctioning body for it.

“Usman is found to have breached his obligations owed to ECB and will therefore not be allowed to participate in ECB sanctioned tournaments/leagues as well as local events organised under the aegis of councils/academies in UAE for a period of five years,” the ECB statement concluded.

It is a sanction that means so much more now than it would have done two years ago, before the advent of the ILT20. Contracts to play in that dwarf whatever else UAE-based players can earn from playing the game.

In many cases, a month or so of work in that competition would exceed what is on offer for an annual ECB central contract.

The ECB’s strong stance on Usman must be seen as a deterrent to players who might consider abusing the ILT20’s yet-to-be eligible local player rule in the future.

Although Usman’s case is unusual, it is perhaps not unique. There are other players in the system who might be courted elsewhere in the future.

Mohammed Rohid, for example, is a left-arm swing bowler who was picked up by Karachi Kings after excelling for MI Emirates in the ILT20. If he were to catch the eye in the PSL in future, might he also forego his plan to qualify for the UAE?

Hassan Khan Eisakhil is another. The teen batter from Sharjah went unpicked after playing in the ILT20 development tournament, participation in which was dependent on players stating their aim was to represent the UAE in future.

And yet the next major cricket he was involved in was for an emerging Afghanistan side. Understandably so, seeing as he is Afghan cricket royalty as the son of Mohammed Nabi.

But the ECB do need to know where they stand as regards players’ allegiances, rather than allowing players the option of flip-flopping – hence the punitive measures for Usman.

Should there be any lingering bitterness towards Usman? Surely no one could begrudge him the opportunity that faces him, to represent the country of his birth, and a Test-playing nation and that. Especially given the circuitous route he has taken to get there.

In many ways, the ECB’s claims on him are less than they would be for, say, Mahika Gaur, whose career has also taken her to the game’s mainstream.

Gaur learnt all her cricket in the UAE. When the England-born left-arm fast bowler then secured a place at a school in the UK, a place in the domestic game there, and in quick time elevation to the full England side, it was seen as a major endorsement of the sport here.

Yes, it has left a massive hole in the women’s national team. But it also showed there is so much good happening in the women’s game in the UAE.

There is not an exact equivalency between the men’s and women’s games in this country, given they are at different stages in their development. Neither is Usman’s case exactly like that of Gaur’s.

For Usman, rather than being his home since childhood, the country represented a port in the storm created by Covid-19. It was hospitality that he genuinely hoped he would be able to repay at some stage. The fact it ultimately did not should not be held against him.

He would have been 30 by the time he got the chance to represent the UAE, and the lure of home was too great. His chance is now for Pakistan. Good luck to him.

Updated: April 22, 2024, 8:09 AM