Shahzad Altaf plays an important role in the UAE being at the World Cup after 19 years, Paul Radley writes
Remnants of the 1996 Cricket World Cup and its influence on UAE cricket are few, in fact, almost none.
About half of the squad who represented the national team in their first appearance at cricket’s biggest event 19 years ago still live in the country, but barely any retain an active involvement in the sport.
Sultan Zarawani, the charismatic Emirati who captained and essentially bankrolled that side, has rarely stepped onto a cricket field since.
Though he did much to entrench the idea of a representative team in a nation where cricket has always been seen as a foreign game. He quickly distanced himself from the game’s new establishment after their World Cup sojourn.
Others have drifted back to their homelands, their moments of fame consigned to some long-forgotten archives.
Fortunately for UAE cricket, though, there is one veteran of 1996 who still has his fingerprints all over the game here.
Shahzad Altaf played two games at the subcontinent World Cup. As a gentle medium-paced seam-bowler, he took one wicket, that of the Netherlands opener Nolan Clarke.
Listen to him talking for long and you might guess the fact he conceded 15 runs from his 10 overs in the win over the Dutch was his finest achievement in cricket.
Statistically, maybe, but it is not. Not by a long shot.
After ending his playing association with the national team a couple of years after that World Cup, Altaf devoted himself to coaching and UAE cricket has been grateful to him ever since.
The Young Talents Cricket Academy he set up has become a voracious production line for players who have represented the UAE.
In a country where the pathway between junior sport and senior representative teams is often a difficult one, his strike rate is remarkable.
Of the 30-man probables squad named ahead of the World Cup, Altaf had given five their first chance in cricket, a fair feat given the high percentage of newly arrived expatriate players in the game here.
“My life is cricket,” Altaf said. “You will always see me at the ground.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing children playing cricket and enjoying it.”
At age 57, he employs a staff of coaches at his academy and tutors only on the weekends when he conducts specialist, one-to-one work with the most promising among the 150 or so players in his academy.
“We give very tough coaching to the boys we think have a future in the game,” said Altaf, whose annual junior cricket competition has hosted the likes of subsequent England international Ben Stokes and Scott Borthwick.
Two of the UAE’s 2015 World Cup squad are alumni of his academy: Andri Berenger, the highly regarded opening batsman who played Under 19 cricket for Sri Lanka, and Fahad Al Hashmi, the Emirati seam bowler.
It is not just the technical advice he provided that aided the players’ progression. Stories from the good old days helped sustain them, too.
“He was brilliant,” Berenger said of his first cricket coach before leaving for his World Cup debut with the UAE.
“He told me about going to the World Cup, told me how he used to get Sri Lankans out. He was bragging about that. It must have been a nice feeling to play in the World Cup.”
The national team beyond this World Cup is likely to be well peopled by Altaf proteges.
Ahmed Raza, another UAE international who just missed out on the final squad when it was trimmed to 15, was 10 years old when he first attended the academy.
Still only 26, Raza has been representing the national team for the past decade and captained the side in its most recent one-day international, a win over Afghanistan in Dubai.
Not bad for a player who was persuaded to be a spinner after starting out at Altaf’s academy with aspirations as a fast bowler.
“He had no pace, that is why we suggested he try spin,” Altaf said.
Since that eureka moment, Raza has not looked back, although he did start to look down on people.
Altaf dispensed his advice when Raza was a relatively short teenager but now he is strikingly tall, which would have been a handy attribute for a quick bowler.
Raza said he was a medium pacer – “I won’t call myself a fast bowler at all” – who used to bat a bit. But he was dropped from the national Under-15 squad.
“I was not very tall at that point and Shahzad told me I had a lot of competition as a left-arm swing bowler, that I didn’t have zip and should turn myself into a spinner.
“He turned me into a spinner. He came up with the idea and it all worked.”
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE