T20 World Cup: Usman Khan's UAE peers 'happy and sad' after switch to Pakistan

Batter’s decision to represent country of birth gets mixed response from those he left behind in the Emirates

Usman Khan opted for Pakistan after being close to representing UAE in international cricket. AFP
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Social media appearances can be deceiving, but judged by his output in recent days, Usman Khan is precisely where he has always wanted to be.

This week he shared a tweet showing himself holding court in front of the Pakistan squad in Dallas, where they start their T20 World Cup campaign against the USA on Thursday.

Some of the sport’s biggest stars were hanging on his every word. Gary Kirsten, the new coach, was trying to make sense of it. Babar Azam was attempting to film it on his phone, in between fits of laughter. Shaheen Afridi held his shades.

Usman could scarcely have looked more comfortable in the company of greats. It is remarkable to think it is still only a little over two months since he was still contemplating a future with the UAE team.

The 29-year-old batter has still yet to return to the shared accommodation in Hor Al Anz, near the end of the Dubai International Airport runway, where he is technically still resident.

His elevation from aspiring UAE international to World Cup-bound with Pakistan all started with an extraordinary sequence of innings, including back-to-back centuries, in the Pakistan Super League.

His form made it impossible for Pakistan to neglect him any longer. He was invited to a training camp organised by the army in Abbottabad, and was made to choose: home nation Pakistan, or adopted one UAE?

Plumping for the former, it earned him a five-year ban from Emirates Cricket Board-sanctioned events. Most of his peers accepted it was the obvious choice to make, but some of those he has left behind have mixed feelings.

“I feel sad at the same time because I invested in him so much so he could be used for the UAE,” said Taher Hasan. “Anyhow, I am happy for him because he is playing for a Test nation.”

It was Taher who first brought Usman to the UAE, to play for the staff team of his company, Brothers Gas. Usman was following a path trodden by many players before him, who had fallen through the gaps in the game in Pakistan then opted to pursue a more financially secure future in the Emirates.

“Players who were disheartened elsewhere, I used to offer them a job,” Taher said.

“I would tell them to come and work with me, build up their career, and at the same time we can play cricket as our passion. If you have good luck, if you perform well, and you can go to the next level, I will support you whatever way I can.”

He was sent some videos on WhatsApp of Usman batting, and thought it was worth an offer. In September 2019, he found a place for him at his company, and provided an employment visa.

“He was so disheartened [in Pakistan] he said, ‘Sir, I will do anything as I just need to survive’,” Taher said.

“He landed in the morning, and we had a match in the evening. I met him for the first time at the ground. After our introduction, he said, ‘Sir, from today onwards I promise you your team will be the No 1 team in UAE.’ And he proved it.”

Usman peeled off century after century in domestic cricket, making Brothers Gas one of the leading sides in the country. It put him firmly in the sights of the UAE selectors, and the ECB provided him a retainer contract, even though he would not be eligible until 2025.

Then his breakout display at the PSL changed everything.

“I feel sad,” Taher, who is an Indian national, said. “I paid him salary for four years and gave him everything. What was my interest in him? He should play for my club, then play for UAE. I never thought he would go for PSL and Pakistan. But that is destiny.

“I am happy for him, but sad as well. Indians are crazy about their cricket. As much as I love Indian cricket, I am involved in the same way in UAE cricket. It is my home, and I am so passionate about UAE cricket.

“But he is a player and he has to look for his own growth. Who would leave an opportunity to play for Pakistan?”

When Taher left Brothers Gas, the side folded, and Usman had to look for alternative employment. He was taken on by Shahzad Altaf, the former seam bowler who played for the UAE at the 1996 World Cup, before going on to a successful career in coaching.

It was Altaf to whom Usman turned when he got the call from Pakistan.

“He called me and asked what he thought was his best option,” Altaf said. “I have nothing against UAE cricket at all, but I said I felt his future would be best with Pakistan.

“It is always possible you might get picked and then removed from the team and not get back. But you should take the risk. Even with the UAE team, there is no security or guarantees. If you are a good cricketer, you have to take the risk.”

Usman’s former teammates in the UAE understand the decision he made.

“You have to be practical in life,” said Chirag Suri, the former UAE batter who was a teammate of Usman’s in T10 cricket.

“In the UAE, we don’t know what the future for cricket will be because we are dependent on ODI status. If you are in a full member country, let alone Pakistan, you can’t say no.”

Suri says Usman was sincere in his previously stated intention of playing for the UAE.

“He was saying, ‘Chirag-bhai, how should I handle this situation,’ and said he wanted to represent UAE and play international cricket,” Suri said of their days playing together.

“He is a very hard-working guy. He would go to Goltay Academy [Altaf’s academy], coach the kids, then play himself. He was always trying to help out others.

“His personality is very good. When you see good people do well, you feel happy. That is why he is successful.

“He was very inquisitive, happy to learn and happy to share. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to ask us anything because he was a good player himself, but he wanted to learn. That is why he has gone ahead.

“His biggest attribute is that he reads the game very well. He reads the bowler and knows what the guy is going to do before he does it. That is what the best players in the world do.”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 5:33 AM