DUBAI // If there are two things Aaqib Javed knows best, they are pace bowling and what it feels like to play international cricket while still a callow youth.
The coach of the UAE national team was just 16 when Imran Khan plucked him from age-group cricket to play for Pakistan against Viv Richards’s West Indies in 1988.
Imran must have had a decent eye for a player. Aaqib went on to play more than 180 times for Pakistan in all forms of international cricket and was a World Cup winner in 1992.
So it is little surprise the man overseeing the UAE’s upward ascent in international cricket has no fears about giving youth its chance as well.
He will see first-hand the best the country has to offer when Abu Dhabi and Sharjah play in Friday’s final of the first National Under 19 competition.
Aaqib already has a sound knowledge of many of the players involved. The respective captains, Sharjah’s Ahsan Ali and Abu Dhabi’s Yodhin Punja, were both part of the extended 30-man probables list ahead of the World Cup earlier this year.
Both seamers, each of them missed out when the squad was eventually pared down to the final 15, but they remain part of the senior team’s plans ahead of the World Twenty20 qualifier in July.
Punja’s prominence is remarkable, given he is still only 15. Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, he is already excited by the prospect of playing for the country of his birth at senior level. Rather than feeling daunted by the idea, he is relishing the step up.
“Playing for UAE would be great, and I would like to do that as soon as possible — the younger the better,” he said after Thursday’s win over Dubai at the Fairgrounds Oval in Academic City.
“All I care about is reaching the best of my abilities. Being a bowler, I want to bowl at the very top level and be amongst the best in the world, no matter where I play. I just want to be at the top.”
Punja says he was shocked when he first found out his performances in age-group matches were being monitored at senior level, and he had been rewarded with a place in the World Cup extended squad.
“It was a week-and-a-half after coming back from the Under-19 tour to Kuwait, which were World Cup qualifiers,” he said.
“We finished in third place, didn’t qualify for the World Cup, so everyone was feeling low, and so was I. I didn’t expect to get in, but I heard from a few coaches there was a chance. Words can’t explain how I felt.
“I have been playing cricket for eight years now and it is something I would give up anything to do.”
He will have the chance to further press his case when Aaqib, as well as a set of players from the UAE’s World Cup squad, attend today’s Under 19 final at the Zayed Academy Oval in Abu Dhabi.
Reaching the final is a fine achievement for the capital side, given that Punja, at 15, is not even the youngest player in the team.
There are two 14 year olds — Jonathan Figy, who top-scored with 47 in the win in Dubai, and Karthik Palaniappan, a leg-spinner who opened the bowling.
In the day’s other match, Atharva Kavi took four for nine as Sharjah, who were already confirmed as finalists, bowled out Ajman for 70 in less than 26 overs to set up an easy win.
The tournament, which is run by Andy Russell, the national development manager, is the sort of concept Aaqib has craved since he took the post of UAE coach.
He has frequently touted the idea of having the best players in the competition face each other.
The first edition at age-group level has been well-received by those involved, and there are plans in place for a similar version in senior men’s cricket.
“It is very good for young players like us to be involved in a tournament like this to try to improve our games, and hopefully the UAE can find some new talent,” said Ali, Sharjah’s captain.
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