Muhammad Waseem the star but UAE’s Asia Cup qualification was a team triumph

National team made remarkable turnaround from woes of last month to take ACC Premier Cup title in fine fashion in Muscat

UAE celebrate with the ACC Men's Premier Cup trophy following their 55-run win over Oman in Al Amerat, Muscat. Photo: Subas Humagain for The National
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It felt obvious that Muhammad Waseem would be the man to drag UAE cricket out of its malaise and back to glory.

Even he had acknowledged as much. “It does feel that if I go early my team is under pressure,” Waseem said in the aftermath of the UAE’s series loss to Scotland last month. “In the coming tournaments, I have to handle this.”

That statement followed on straight after the national team had posted their lowest score in a full international match. They were dire.

It was their last match before they were to play against the likes of Oman and Nepal for Asia Cup qualification. Their prospects seemed hopeless back then.

Now, 37 days later, that same team are booked in for a trip to face India, Pakistan, and the rest of the continent’s top stars at the Asia Cup next year.

Yes, it was Waseem who provided the most indelible memory of the turnaround. His century in the final of the ACC Premier Cup on Sunday in Muscat felt inevitable, in truth.

The pitch was docile. The boundaries reachable. He had a couple of slices of luck. And he delivered, another ton on a ground he adores, to set up a comprehensive win against the host nation.

But was it all about him? Far from it. Waseem was able to thrive purely because everyone around him was pulling their weight. Everyone from one to 14.

Only one player in the squad did not get a start at some point in the tournament. And yet, with the tiniest window of opportunity possible, even Rahul Bhatia managed to make an impression.

After the UAE posted an impressive but – given the facilities – not impregnable total of 204 in the final, Bhatia went out to field as 12th man at the start of Oman’s chase.

The UAE were aware they had a big total but that defending was not a given. They knew they needed to be tight at the start to ratchet up the scoreboard pressure. If Oman got a flier, the chase was achievable.

Bhatia, the back-up spinner, had not played a game or bowled a delivery in the tournament. He had had two weeks in Muscat as a glorified drinks carrier and net bowler.

And yet his contribution was still significant. As a leg-bye appeared to be speeding away for four off the second ball, he dived to his right from short fine leg with all the feline athleticism of peak Jonty Rhodes.

It was an impossible stop which saved a definite boundary, and further energised a UAE side who were already buzzing off the back of Waseem’s century.

Off the very next delivery, Junaid Siddique had Kashyap Prajapati caught at the wicket, and the UAE were in overdrive.

Bhatia was off the field and back into his hi-vis bib before the third over. Oman were seven for two by that point. His part in the drama had been imperceptible, yet vital.

It is a trite observation in the aftermath of victory, but the UAE did seem like a side transformed from that which was humbled by Scotland and Canada last month.

“I was new then, but we have really worked hard, and I think the fruits are coming now,” Lalchand Rajput, the UAE coach, said.

“We had a camp for 20 days before coming here. Our batting has started to click, we have bowled well. We have worked hard on our skill level.”

One feature of the new era is Rajput’s introduction of a medal, awarded at the end of each day’s play to the UAE’s outstanding fielder from the match.

“It is motivation for them to give their best on the field,” Rajput said. “So that every game everybody gives their best, and I think it worked.”

In fact, the UAE’s standards dropped in the final, their giddiness over impending victory manifesting itself in the form of four dropped catches.

Be that as it may, they did enough. Their standout across the 20 overs of their defence of 205 was again their new wicketkeeper, Syed Hyder Shah.

He was involved in five of the nine Oman dismissals, as he took three catches, a stumping, and assisted with a run out.

“We are strict about our fielding as it is one of most important aspects of modern cricket,” Shah said.

“All the coaching staff help us a lot with fielding, and now with a bit of motivation to do exceptionally well, Lalchand-sir came up with this idea to give a medal to the best fielder.

“It is for who put in the best effort, who is the most lively, and who takes the best catches. That encourages us all to do more in the field.”

Shah was himself on his first tour with the senior team. It said much about the fact he was starting to feel at ease with his surroundings that he danced a jig after completing the stumping that ended the resistance of Khalid Kail.

“It is a dream come true,” Shah said of winning his debut series with the UAE.

“It felt like a long time coming, then finally to be here and get over the line, it feels amazing.

“Ali[shan Sharafu, the young batter who was the leading run-scorer in the competition] and me are really close friends, and he's like a brother to me.

“He said to me that a few good catches or a stumping could take us over the line, so I need to be active.

“I had taken two catches, then when I took a stumping I went up to Alishan and said, ‘This is how I get it done.’ It is an inside thing between me and him from back in the day.”

Rajput said Sharafu’s haul of 278 runs in the competition was indicative of the fact the side is no longer reliant on Waseem.

“Cricket is a team game, not a one-man game,” Rajput said. “If you want a one-man game, go and play table tennis or lawn tennis.

“Yes, one guy can win you a game, so all the batters have to take the responsibility to be that guy to win the game.

“We spoke about consistency and I am really glad that Alishan has shown that throughout the tournament.”

Updated: April 22, 2024, 5:59 AM