DUBAI // We have all been there. You are trying to get a team together for the weekend and it is not looking good. Numbers are down because people are busy at the office. Your premier all-rounder has been bullied into taking the wife and children on holiday, mid-season.
The opening bowler is complaining he is suffering from RSI because he has been working too hard at work. The wicketkeeper has lost one of his gloves. Emails are flying round to people you had forgotten you knew, in the hope they may know how to play cricket, and on the off chance they would fancy a game. But hope is fading fast. Who are you going to call? If your team are Fly Emirates, then Shahid Afridi, the world's most explosive cricketer, seems like the most sensible option.
"A couple of months back I was sent an email to my company email address, regarding cricket," remembers Nigel Fernandes, who juggles his time between his job as an airport services and check-in supervisor for Emirates with captaining the staff cricket team. "It said, 'Would you like Afridi in your team?' When I read it I thought somebody must be joking. That is not the sort of email you get every day.
"Later on I received another email telling me it was official and that he would be coming to play with us. I couldn't believe it. "We were all amazed and excited the world's best Twenty20 player would be coming to play for us." Every silver line has a cloud, however. For all his obvious merits, Afridi has been known to be a little tough for his captains to handle in the past. He has never been too far from controversy, and is presently reeling from the Pakistan Cricket Board's recent purge on ill-discipline.
The match fee he will be getting for his guest appearance in this weekend's Emirates Airline Twenty20 will be gratefully received, bearing in mind the three million Pakistan Rupees (Dh130,000) fine he incurred for his part in Pakistan's most recent tribulations off the pitch, which saw former captains Younus Khan and Mohammed Yousuf given indefinite bans from representing their countries. His mood seemed perky enough at yesterday's pre-tournament press conference, but his captain for the weekend is still planning to go softly-softly.
"I hope I won't have to order him around," said Fernandes, with a broad grin, still seemingly disbelieving that Afridi is at his side. Intriguingly, Afridi will be taking his lead from an Indian, a scenario which has sadly been deprived a more high-profile platform of late, since Pakistani players are unable to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Fernandes established his reputation as a leading player in Mumbai league cricket before moving to Dubai nine years ago.
While everyone has been going potty over the return of the IPL back in Fernandes's homeland, the world's best Twenty20 player has been conspicuous by his absence. For Afridi's part, however, the lucrative 20-over league is of little concern. "Without Pakistani players in the IPL, I am not really interested to see these games," he said. "I enjoy watching the Australian games, and I really enjoyed playing in the Big Bash in Australia. We qualified for the Champions League as well."
Cross-border rivalry is hardly likely to be an issue this weekend, however. Fly Emirates have established themselves as one of the leading sides in UAE domestic cricket thanks to a polyglot set of players. "When it comes to our team, there is no rivalry," added Fernandes. "We have seven Pakistani players, two Sri Lankans and two Indians. Any rivalry is for politicians. We prefer to play as a team."
While his new teammates have been looking forward to this weekend gleefully, the prospect of playing against Afridi remains a daunting one for the professionals from the other sides. Sussex and Surrey may have a smattering of English internationals between them. Monty Panesar, the England spin bowler, will make his first appearance for his new county, Sussex, when they take on Fly Emirates at 12.30pm today, meaning he could be pitched straight into direct conflict with Pakistan's finest.
"I hope he has a bat which hasn't got a great middle - then I might have a bit of a chance," said Panesar, who moved to the English south coast county this winter. "The size of the bats you get these days, you kind of hope they just don't middle it and it goes too long on." The grass banks at the new cricket ground at The Sevens can seat around 4,000 spectators. This is the first staging of a competition that the organisers hope will become cricket's version of the popular Dubai Rugby Sevens. They are hoping the Afridi-effect will bring in between 1,500 and 3,000 people today. All of which could make the challenge facing the fourth side in the competition, the Cape Cobras emerging players side, even more intimidating. The South African franchise took up a late invitation to play here after the participation of the Emirates-sponsored Kings XI Punjab development side was vetoed by Lalit Modi.
The IPL impresario was unwilling to spare a side from his league, no matter that it would have been peopled by little-known, emerging players, while the competition is ongoing. The chances of them featuring again in the coming years of the tournament remains likely, however. The senior Cobras side, meanwhile, are also still embroiled in domestic competition in South Africa. However, their staff are optimistic about the abilities of the raw, young players they have brought here. "They are very excited," said Omar Henry, the former Proteas spin bowler who is manager of the Cobras tour squad. "Selection has come as a shock to most of them. We went outside our provincial spheres, saw raw talent, and just took it and said, 'Come and see what you can do'." @Email:email@example.com
SUSSEX: You might recognise: Monty Panesar - the "Sikh of Tweak" once ranked among the most recognisable faces in the English game. However, he has slipped down the pecking order lately, hence the move down south to revive his career. Remember the name: Joe Gatting - Not a difficult surname to remember, given the exploits of uncle Mike, the England captain. Father Steve had a football career of distinction. Joe could become a T20 star. Aspirations: Sussex are the Twenty20 Cup holders in England, and will call on the services of Tillakaratne Dilshan when they defend their title this summer. SURREY: You might recognise: Chris Tremlett - the towering fast bowler was 12th man for England in four of the five Ashes Test matches in 2005. Like Panesar, he is looking to reinvigorate his stalled international career following a move from Hampshire. Remember the name: Stuart Meaker - while still at school, he clocked well in excess of 90mph during a session at the national academy monitored by HawkEye. Aspirations: After years of under-achievement, Surrey are putting the building blocks in place for what they hope will be a golden future. Rory Hamilton-Brown, the new captain has arrived with points to prove.
CAPE COBRAS: You might recognise: Omar Henry - given the youthful make-up of the Cobras squad here, the most recognisable faces feature in their staff. Henry, a left-arm spin bowler, was the first non-white to play for South Africa. Remember the name: Romano Ramoo - a 22-year-old batsman from East London, Ramoo played alongside the likes of Wayne Parnell and Craig Kieswetter for South Africa at the 2006 ICC Under 19 World Cup. Aspirations: The Cobras bosses have the chance to run the rule over players they hope will emulate the successes of JP Duminy and Herschelle Gibbs. Do not rule them out. FLY EMIRATES: You might recognise: Shahid Afridi - he gets banned occasionally for random indiscretions like ball-biting. The World Twenty20 winner, one of the most popular players in the world, you must have heard of him. Remember the name: Amjad Javed - it might seem ridiculous to even think that Afridi may have a challenger for the rank of biggest hitter. But if the UAE all-rounder gets the chance to tee off, take cover. Aspirations: The part-timers have nothing to lose. Arshad Ali scored a double ton in international 50-over cricket long before Sachin Tendulkar made it fashionable. And there is that bloke called Afridi.
Venue: The Sevens, Dubai Admission:Dh25 per day; Dh40 for a two-day pass; Children under 12 enter for free Schedule: Friday 9am - Surrey v Fly Emirates 12.30pm - Sussex v Fly Emirates 4pm - Surrey v Cape Cobras 7.30pm - Sussex v Cape Cobras Saturday 11am - Sussex v Surrey 3pm - Cape Cobras v Fly Emirates 7.30pm - Final