UAE cricketers return to training in different environment but with same enthusiasm

Captain Ahmed Raza admits he took some to get used to bowling again, while veteran Mustafa reveals weight loss

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Reuniting with workmates after three months apart is likely to feel surreal for most people.

The UAE’s cricketers might have felt the separation anxiety even more acutely, given the amount of time they spend touring, rooming, playing and training together.

Then there is the case of Ahmed Raza and Rohan Mustafa, who went to school together even before spending the best part of the past decade in the national team alongside each other.

You might think only so much could have changed in the time since the coronavirus lockdown started.

According to Raza, though, he barely recognised his long-time colleague when they returned to nets at the ICC Academy for the first time on Sunday.

“Being three months into this, we have trained our brains so that, when we see anyone we know we can’t shake hands, or hug, or do anything like that,” Raza, the UAE captain, said.

“When I walked in at 12.50pm, I just shouted, ‘Hello, boys, salam alaikum,’ and walked past everyone.

“Everyone kept a good distance throughout the training session, but it was good to see everyone.

“It was good to see Ronny [Mustafa]. He is looking like a 19-year old now. He has lost 10kgs, thanks to home training and a good diet.

“We haven’t seen each other for three months, and you can’t tell on Zoom calls.”

Although they only saw each in passing – the players have split training sessions in small groups, as per return-to-play safety guidelines – Raza’s impression of his mate was correct.

Mustafa confirmed he has lost 10kgs during lockdown, as per a fitness challenge set down by his close friend Sikandar Raza, the Zimbabwe all-rounder.

Given he was among the fittest UAE players before the break anyway, the rest of the returning players will feel like they have some catching up to do.

“I was working really hard,” said Mustafa, who also had laser-eye surgery during the time away from playing.

“For the first week when corona started, I wasn’t doing anything. I spoke to my friends Umar Shah and Sikandar Raza, and we decided we needed to look after ourselves.

“Sikky told me he was on a diet. I said, ‘Please, don’t challenge me. If you do, I will do anything to beat you.’

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Paul Radley. Sport.  The ball is disinfected. The UAE cricket team are back at training at the ICC academy after the government have eased restrictions due to Coivd-19/Coronavirus. Sunday, June 7th, 2020. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“After that, I started a diet, and it was very strict. Every sweet thing, I love it – but I stopped everything. I didn’t touch anything. Even tea, I don’t take a single sugar in it now.

“I would do a normal training session in the afternoon, then in the night I would do a Zoom call with Umar and Sikandar and train.

“After the call I would do a little extra, too. My wife asked what I was doing, and I told her I want a six-pack.”

He says he has not stopped there, either.

“It is a journey,” Mustafa said. “I am still in it. I want to be fit like the Indian batsmen, and I will try my level best to be like that.”

Raza, who worked in a four-man group alongside Imran Haider, Chirag Suri and Mohammed Ayaz, said the first steps to returning have taken some getting used to.

“I hadn’t bowled in three months, and I don’t think that has happened before,” Raza said.

“I can’t remember where the first ball ended up, but it was not on the stumps. And my fingers felt weird.

“After about an hour I did a video saying, ‘First ball in three months, top of off stump,’ and I did that. But really that was an hour into training.

“It felt different, but this is the new normal. It is the first step to getting back to normality.

“We are working within the guidelines of the ICC and the sports councils.

"It was strange bowling with a mask on but for the past three months we have been crying to get back, so we are not complaining.”