‘They have given us love back’ - Afghanistan, Sharjah and cricket’s special relationship

Emirate played a key part in Afghan national team’s rise to the top. Now they are repaying the favour, and UAE cricket could be set to benefit

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The anti-social start times of some of the matches at the T20 World Cup are likely to test even the most diehard supporters in the UAE.

The Afghan connection

The influx of talented young Afghan players to UAE cricket could have a big impact on the fortunes of both countries. Here are three Emirates-based players to watch out for.

Hassan Khan Eisakhil
Mohammed Nabi is still proving his worth at the top level but there is another reason he is raging against the idea of retirement. If the allrounder hangs on a little bit longer, he might be able to play in the same team as his son, Hassan Khan. The family live in Ajman and train in Sharjah.

Masood Gurbaz
The opening batter, who trains at Sharjah Cricket Academy, is another player who is a part of a famous family. His brother, Rahmanullah, was an IPL winner with Kolkata Knight Riders, and opens the batting with distinction for Afghanistan.

Omid Rahman
The fast bowler became a pioneer earlier this year when he became the first Afghan to represent the UAE. He showed great promise in doing so, too, playing a key role in the senior team’s qualification for the Asia Cup in Muscat recently.

Whether or not he makes the 4.30am beginning for their opener against Uganda on Monday morning, an 83-year-old Emirati in Sharjah will be following Afghanistan’s fortunes keenly. After all, Abdulrahman Bukhatir has played a central role in their extraordinary rise.

The landscape of much of Asian cricket would look very different today were it not for the vision of the businessman who is regarded as the father of cricket here.

As a schoolboy abroad in Karachi – “the only Arab in class,” as he described it – Bukhatir became transfixed by BBC radio transmissions of Test cricket.

Safe to assume he probably has an ultra-HD widescreen TV on which to watch the transmissions from the United States and the Caribbean this month.

His heroes are as different now as the medium via which he follows them. Back then, it was the likes of Hanif Mohammed, Tiger Pataudi and Richie Benaud, playing in pressed white flannels.

Now he avidly follows players like Rashid Khan and Mohammed Nabi, playing with a white ball and wearing vivid multicoloured kits.

It was Bukhatir who founded the first home for the sport in the Middle East, with the construction of Sharjah Cricket Stadium in the early 1980s.

Many have benefitted from his largesse in the time since. Most pertinently ahead of the start of the T20 World Cup, Afghanistan.

This tournament marks their return to the first place they ever appeared on the global stage. The 2010 World T20 in the Caribbean capped the rise to the very top of cricket for a side whose roots were in refugee camps having been displaced by war.

It was also the same year they had been granted free use of all Sharjah cricket had to offer.

“My father had a soft heart,” said Khalaf Bukhatir, Abdrulrahman’s son and the present chief executive of Sharjah Cricket.

“He wanted to provide all our facilities for them to prepare their cricketers, because he thought, with all the challenges they had in Afghanistan at that time, it wasn’t really possible.”

He offered the use of the cricket village he owned in Al Dhaid, as well as Sharjah Stadium itself, to the Afghans free of charge. Within seven years, they were admitted to the Test-playing elite.

“Today my father is 83 years old, he still watches cricket, and he is the proudest when he sees Afghanistan performing,” Khalaf said.

“He knows them all by name. When the [ODI] World Cup was on he was so proud of how they did. This was a team that no one ever thought would come to this level. He always had that trust in this team, and they have proved it.”

At the time when Afghanistan were first granted use of Sharjah, they and the UAE were similarly placed in the rankings. The Afghans have left the national team in their wake since, but the game in the country could be set to benefit from the Afghan influence itself now.

Many of the Afghan side call the UAE home . They have not forgotten what Bukhatir and Sharjah did for them, and they are happy to give back.

Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Azmatullah Omarzai, Nabi and Karim Janat are regulars at nets there, and often provide an audience for Sharjah’s own cricket hopefuls.

“It is like a second home for them,” said Niaz-ul-Islam, the head coach of Sharjah Cricket Academy.

“When I talk with them, they say they feel like they are at home. I’m trying to give everyone the best environment.

“The international players are stars. You have to give them respect, make a good environment for them and good practice sessions, and I am trying. Until now, they have been happy.”

It shows in the make up of the academy. Before the pandemic – and the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan – there were two or three Afghan children in the ranks of the Sharjah academy. Now there are more than 10 times that number.

Earlier this year, Omid Rahman – a product of Sharjah – became the first Afghan national to represent the UAE in senior international cricket. He is unlikely to be the last, given the talent that is emerging.

“These guys can become the second Omid Rahman, and the third and fourth, and play for the UAE,” said Niaz, a Pakistan national who coached in Kabul before moving to Sharjah.

“Omid performed so well when he debuted for the UAE, and I am 100 per cent sure these guys can do the same. They are very hard workers.

“When I went to Afghanistan, believe me, I did a session continuously for two hours. Then I told them to go and take a rest.

“I took a walk to my room to have a break myself. I came back and saw they had continued doing their own practice. The energy they have for cricket is unbelievable.”

Seeing Omid succeed makes the aspiring players believe they can do the same, according to Atta Rahman. A 17-year-old batter in the academy, he first came from Khost to the UAE in 2016 after his father established a travel and tourism business in Dubai.

“Here you get more opportunities,” Atta said. “There are professional cricket grounds which you may not see in Afghanistan.

“There are good grounds, and if the people see you playing good cricket maybe you can play at the higher level.”

Plus, of course, you get to tap into the expertise of world stars, too.

“It has a big impact when our academy students are being bowled to by Nabi or given advice by Gurbaz,” Khalaf said.

“It makes our academy players feel like it is normal having these international players around.

“The Afghani players are so humble. They will never say they don’t have time for them. They are always encircled by our students, and they will always answer their questions.

“They don’t charge us anything, but they are happy to see our boys growing. And we have seen a big increase in the number of students because of them.

“They have given us back what we feel we gave them all those years ago. They have given us love back.”

Updated: May 30, 2024, 6:37 AM
The Afghan connection

The influx of talented young Afghan players to UAE cricket could have a big impact on the fortunes of both countries. Here are three Emirates-based players to watch out for.

Hassan Khan Eisakhil
Mohammed Nabi is still proving his worth at the top level but there is another reason he is raging against the idea of retirement. If the allrounder hangs on a little bit longer, he might be able to play in the same team as his son, Hassan Khan. The family live in Ajman and train in Sharjah.

Masood Gurbaz
The opening batter, who trains at Sharjah Cricket Academy, is another player who is a part of a famous family. His brother, Rahmanullah, was an IPL winner with Kolkata Knight Riders, and opens the batting with distinction for Afghanistan.

Omid Rahman
The fast bowler became a pioneer earlier this year when he became the first Afghan to represent the UAE. He showed great promise in doing so, too, playing a key role in the senior team’s qualification for the Asia Cup in Muscat recently.