Junior cricket in the UAE has made tremendous strides in recent years, culminating in the Under-19 national team qualifying for January's World Cup in South Africa.
It will be just the second time the UAE will compete at the U19 World Cup – and the first they have qualified for – having played in the 2014 tournament as the host nation.
The improvement in the fortunes of youth cricket in the UAE can be attributed to the vast increase in matches junior cricketers are playing since the founding of the Emirates Cricket Board’s (ECB) National Academies League four years ago.
The tournament has expanded from a 12-team Under-18 event in its inaugural year to comprise now of 76 teams across three age groups for U19, U15, and U13.
The man responsible for the National Academies League, and the continued improvement of youth cricket in the UAE, is ECB development officer Andy Russell.
“We first started with the U18 league as we found there was a big need for a consistent season and a tournament where we can engage all the players around the country,” Russell said.
“We gathered all the information as to who were the best players and how they performed over a season for selections. We started a large junior section so we could follow them from an early age.”
The league quickly grew in popularity and the addition of more teams for the second season forced Russell and his team to split the league into North and South and by separating the top and bottom four sides into Cup and Plate competitions.
An U14 league was added in the third season, before the structure was adjusted again to accommodate its current three age-group tier for this year.
“Four years ago, we struggled to compete with the other associate nations but now our performances have vastly improved and we are in the U19 World Cup,” Russell, 34, said.
“We are one of the best associates in Asia when we compare our performances in the age group tournaments.”
According to Russell, who joined the ECB in 2014, junior players in the UAE used to play between 10 and 15 matches a season. That has now increased to around 40 to 50 matches, with the greater exposure to competitive cricket having a direct impact on the playing standards.
There are 34 registered academies around the country, 22 of which feature in the National Academies League.
“The best thing about this tournament is the academies partner the ECB to deliver this competition,” the South African said.
“What’s also been nice was the home and away concept of playing matches. That way the academies host each other and it creates an atmosphere for the players to play in different environments.”
At the conclusion of the Academies League, an inter-emirate tournament will be played involving the four cricket councils Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai and Sharjah.
“The way the structure goes, the best players are invited to represent the four emirates in a quadrangular,” Russell said. “That’s to say players selected from the 22 academies get to play in the best four teams.”
The ECB have also taken initiatives to promote cricket among Emiratis over the past three years, including the appointment of Arabic speaking development officers in two local schools.
Cricket is one of the most widely-played sports in the UAE, but has traditionally struggled to attract interest from the local population, with football and martial arts including jiu-jitsu and judo proving more popular.
“We have had more than 2,500 Emirati children taking part in the programme,” Russell said. “We had a lot of focus on the junior players, which is a long-term project.
“It’s mainly about creating awareness about the sport. We are having weekly festivals in the schools we are working on.”
The ECB are also in the process of establishing a national academy where the best players from the National Academies League could be offered contracts and a free education with the view of a pathway to representing the UAE national teams.
“It takes money,” Russell said. “We are exploring the possibilities to get the best players for this project.”