ABU DHABI // The deterioration in the standard of club cricket in the UAE has been painfully obvious. It is equally clear that the biggest challenge facing the sport's administrators is to find ways to get the game back to the levels that took the Emirates to the top in the Asian Cricket Council, when the UAE's accomplishments included winning the ACC trophy and, with it, automatic qualification to the 1996 World Cup in the Asian subcontinent.
Wajahat Husain, 50, the new president of the Abu Dhabi Cricket Council (ADCC), is determined to be one of the architects of the much-needed cricket renaissance. Husain, who has seen the quality of the game suffer in the past few years, has come up with a plan to introduce a premier division club competition in an attempt to revive standards. "My request to the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) is to have a premier division in place with a ranking system where every regional council will have a quota of fielding two to three teams," he said.
"The top two teams from the B division should get promoted and the two teams finishing in the bottom of the premier league should get demoted every season. It is similar to the Pro League football in the country. "The impetus associated in the premier league must be much higher. The teams should fancy getting into the premier division and most of the pool of talent for the national team should be at this level.
"Without a strong first-tier competition, the talent pool tends to get dissipated. This is something the ECB has to step into and I have already suggested it to them that they should sit with all regional councils to put this together before the start of the next season. "We need to create a greater competitiveness for cricket skills, and I would strongly recommend that each council field two to three teams in the premier division. I think that's the best way of creating strong grassroots.
"If you take some of the established cricket nations, it is the regional system that has created the base to take the game forward. And it is the players at this level who make it into the national teams." Cricket is popular across the UAE, as can be seen by people playing the game in parks and the popularity of the one-day and Twenty20 games between Australia and Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi earlier this year.
But it remains a sport for expatriates, a game not played by Emiratis and not encouraged sufficiently - in the view of Husain - in schools. "We need to create awareness at the schools for children in the age groups of 10 to 15 to pursue the game," he says. "It is a long drawn process but needs to start at the grassroots. The schools cricket is in the charter of the ECB and should be done countrywide.
"It is a task for all of us entrusted with the responsibility of running cricket in the country." Husain's involvement with the ADCC dates back to the council's inception in 1989. He carried out various roles within the council before becoming president, a position left vacant when Dilawar Mani was appointed chief executive of the ECB earlier this year. He is the fifth man to head cricket's governing body in the capital, following Omar Yusuf, Mansoor Javed, Dr BR Shetty and Mani.
One of his first acts as president was to chair the disciplinary committee meeting that banned the UAE international Saqib Ali for a year after an attempted assault on the umpire Mohammed Asif in the United Bank Limited Twenty20 semi-final on June 3. That happened barely a week after Husain took office. "It was done by the concurrence of the committee. I have inherited a legacy from Dilawar Mani to play cricket in its true spirit and such actions by a player can't go unpunished if I have to take anything to the next level," he says.
"Cricket is, by the repeated cliché, still a gentlemen's game. Saqib's ban was a message given to all that we are here to promote cricket, to support the teams and to enhance the quality and the level of cricket in Abu Dhabi. Let there be no compromise on certain issues, discipline and decorum being the cornerstones." In the early days of the ADCC, cricket was played on open stretches of land alongside Airport Road, with rolled sand and cement pitches.
They are now long gone, with the makeshift pitches replaced by the Carrefour supermarket and various embassies and commercial buildings. The ADCC moved to Mussafah in 1997 and remained there until 2002, when they moved to their current home, Zayed Stadium. The venue was built on land donated by the late Sheikh Zayed, who allocated a plot of land along with funds to construct an international stadium.
Husain recalls how cricket in the capital has changed over the decades. "Cricket had been played before I arrived in Abu Dhabi 23 years ago. There were privately organised tournaments every weekend on every available plot of land in the city," he said. "I was quite fortunate to be involved from the time I arrived, then there was the first step of establishing a governing body for cricket in Abu Dhabi. I was part of that team drawing up the constitution.
"When the first council was formed the playing facilities were far from what we have today. Yet the game of cricket thrived. Most of the clubs were funded by one or two people. "From 1988 onwards we saw organisations such as the New Medical Centre, Gamco, Abu Dhabi Duty Free and Union National Bank come forward to form their own teams. We saw some form of formalised support coming in for cricket. "It was a combination of cricket administration and the organisations coming forward, and they employed cricketers with the experience of playing first-class cricket in India and Pakistan, and some of them [were] even on the border of being selected to the national teams. That's how it all started."
Husain's competitive cricket in Pakistan was cut short when he chose to pursue post-graduate studies and then build a career in banking. He is now the United Bank Limited's senior vice-president and head of its Middle East and Africa operations. He formed his own cricket team and opened the batting for his former employer, UNB - a team that went on to dominate the premier division competitions around the country for more than a decade, along with city rivals NMC.
"I was fortunate to get an opportunity to piece together a team in 1988 and the high point was when we won all three major trophies in 1997 - NMC Trophy [Abu Dhabi], Bukhatir League [Sharjah] and Sony Cup [Dubai]." he says. The club had five members - Azhar Saeed, Mazhar Hussain, Arshad Laiq, Imtiaz Abbasi and Shahzad Khan - in the UAE team that won the ACC trophy and in the 1996 World Cup team, in which the batsman Mohammed Aslam came in for the pace bowler Shahzad Khan.
Those were the brightest years for Husain as a player. He still wields the bat, whenever time permits, for the UBL and in friendlies with the ADCC. firstname.lastname@example.org