Opportunity knocks again for UAE

The Emirates side may have missed out on the World Twenty20, but they can look for Asian domination in the coming week.

Bhutan in Kuwait. Or India in the West Indies? With all due respect to the UAE's opening opponents in the ACC Trophy Elite 2010, the Bhutanese national team, who they will play at the Unity Ground in Kuwait tomorrow, it is not really a contest. On two occasions in a little more than a year, the national team have been one game away from earning the right to share the spotlight with the biggest names in cricket.

Most recently, in February, they were a mere five balls from the promised land, before Afghanistan snatched one of the two places at the World Twenty20 from their grasp. So, instead of looking forward to the chance of sharing a field with the likes of MS Dhoni and Graeme Smith, the UAE's top players have had to make do with watching them in the Indian Premier League on television. They are unlikely to have another chance to play at one of the ICC's global events for at least five years. The national team's players could be forgiven for losing a little heart.

Even this ACC Trophy has lost some of its lustre. The tournament, for the top Asian nations outside of the Test elite, used to carry with it a place in the Asia Cup, where the finalists would face the four Test nations. But those privileges have now been dispensed with. However, the UAE have a proud record to defend. They have won this competition more times than any other nation, including four successive titles before ceding control of the trophy to Hong Kong two years ago.

Dilawar Mani, the chief executive of the Emirates Cricket Board, believes the national team still have plenty of reason to stay motivated in Kuwait. "It is still a key tournament," said Mani. "One of the things we have sought to do, and we have been able to thanks to ACC and ICC assistance, is give these boys more cricket. "The amount of games we have played in the past has generally been far less than we are playing now.

"They do have the capability and the talent to win [in Kuwait]. We would certainly like to see that happen. "I expect us to put up a good show, and I expect us to be in the final, with Afghanistan on the other side." Despite their formidable record in the competition - the UAE have been finalists in six of the seven ACC Trophy tournaments - they will, for once, not be considered the favourites in Kuwait.

Hong Kong are the defending champions, and Afghanistan, who have not been past the semi-final stage in this competition, have swept all before them recently. Also, the UAE are still without two key players. Mohammed Tauqir, the Emirati off-spinner who has more winners' medals in the ACC Trophy than any other player, is still nursing a broken hand. Amjad Javed, the all-rounder, also missed February's World Twenty20 qualifier with a similar injury.

He missed selection for this tour as a result, even though he impressed when he made his first tentative steps on the comeback trail for the Fly Emirates staff side a fortnight ago. Arfan Haider, the diminutive left-hander is also missing, as the tournament clashes with his wedding. However, Mani is confident there is a big enough reserve of talent in the Emirates for the national team to be a success.

"We have some bench-strength which can be a threat to the boys who are playing," he added. "We have a long-term strategy and [the established players] should be looking over their shoulders. "We need to ensure these boys develop into good cricketers and realise their full potential." The UAE have been pitched into a group with the Afghans, as well as their Gulf rivals, Bahrain, and Malaysia. Their first game is against a Bhutan side who qualified for the 10-team Elite competition via the ACC Trophy Challenge in Thailand last year. @Email:pradley@thenational.ae

What is the ACC Trophy Elite? It used to be the most important limited-overs competition for Asia's leading nations, outside of the four Test countries - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Afghanistan will be the side to beat. Will the UAE have a chance of winning? They should do. Khurram Khan's side have the best record out of any nation in the competition, and virtually regarded the trophy as their possession, until they gave it up to Hong Kong in Malaysia two years ago. Having played plenty of cricket together since the turn of the year, they should be well prepared, and they have plenty of talent to call on. Alongside the usual suspects, like the captain Khurram and Saqib Ali, a new Sri Lankan strokemaker, Indika Sampath could catch the eye on his maiden tour with the national team. Who could stop them? Hong Kong, as holders, remain one of the side's to contend with, even though they have since lost the coach, Aftab Habib, who guided them to victory in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. Their power-hitting was most evidenced when they beat England in their home Sixes competition last year. Afghanistan have never been beyond the semi-final of this competition, and were thwarted by the UAE last time around. But the progress the refugees-turned-cricket-trailblazers have made since then has been remarkable. Is there anyone worth watching? The Afghanistan coach, Kabir Khan, reckons his players would be good enough to cause an impression at the Indian Premier League, given the chance. Mohammed Nabi, the all-rounder, is one such performer, as is Hamid Hassan, the fast-bowler who, like Nabi, is a former MCC Young Cricketer. Hong Kong's defence will be led by a pair of talented brothers, Irfan and Nadeem Ahmed.