When fantasy becomes Masters Champions League reality for Gemini Arabians owner Nalin Khaitan

After signing captain Virender Sehwag along with marque players Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara, Khaitan took the ground in Sharjah as a player while assessing his new workforce, writes Paul Radley.

Nalin Khaitan, 27, not just plays but has also spent nearly a million dollars to buy the Gemini Arabians team. Photos by Satish Kumar / The National
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SHARJAH // All sports fans know the drill. You analyse the list of players, pore over their prices, work out who is likely to accrue the most points, and try to find the best way to shoehorn all your favourites into one fantasy XI.

Most people use virtual money to put together their side. Nalin Khaitan, a 27-year-old cricket-loving businessman from Dubai, has spent the better part of a million dollars assembling a side to play in the Masters Champions League. Proper cash, not the virtual kind.

Those funds have bought him the services of some of the most celebrated names in cricket.

Virender Sehwag is the team director and captain of the Gemini Arabians franchise, while Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara are the marquee players.

All of which feels a little surreal for the young team owner.

“In the dream teams and the wish-lists, I always had Viru, Sangakkara, Murali and Saqlain Mushtaq,” Khaitan said.

“These four were always key players in all my lists and, luckily, I have all four of them in the team. This was on the drawing board for four months.

“We had Excel sheets, Word files, big documents, then suddenly the day came and everything started coming together and it is an unbelievable feeling.

“You are used to fantasy leagues, where you count your points, and substitute your players. You have done all that growing up, so it is an amazing feeling to have these players here now.”

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One perk of owning the team is the opportunity to play against them. Khaitan regularly plays A Division cricket for his company’s staff team.

He has been known to fly back from business trips in India to play cricket for Interface in Dubai or Sharjah, before hopping on the next plane straight back.

On Monday night, he opened the batting for them in a 20-over practice match against the Arabians at Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

Fair to say, he spent much of the game wondering precisely where his priorities were supposed to lie.

“I thought it would be an appropriate way to give the team practice, and also for my boys. It is a match of their lives,” he said. “While I was fielding and the first three wickets fell, I really didn’t know if I should be cheering or feel upset about it.

“Right now, I am in an Interface jersey, so I wanted Sehwag out first ball.

“Probably once I have finished here I will think to myself, ‘Uh oh ... Let’s wait and see’.”

The game was surreal for the Arabians recruits, too. They know they are lucky to get a chance like this at this stage of their careers and they want to do well when the tournament begins, starting against Libra Legends at the Dubai International Stadium on Thursday evening.

Photo gallery: Jacques Kallis, Owais Shah, Brendan Taylor and more – Masters Champions League players to watch

Still, though, going full bore at the man who funds the whole operation must have felt peculiar. It is like biting the hand that feeds them.

They did not go easy, though. Graham Onions, the former England bowler, even appealed for obstructing the field when, while attempting a run out​, his throw hit Khaitan. He was eventually out for 20, but not before taking boundaries off Kyle Mills and Paul Harris.

Saqlain said the game was an opportunity for the players to prove themselves fit and ready for selection the opener.

“Whenever I play, I always give 100 per cent,” Saqlain, 39, said. “I want to prepare myself for the proper game.

“I’m not sure about the other boys, but I want to use this game to prepare myself fully for the game on January 28 – if I get picked.”

Sehwag, who was out to the fourth ball of the warm-up match, said his side will be ready when the serious business starts later this week.

“As professionals, we are used to playing the game of cricket and we know what our responsibilities are,” Sehwag said.

“They are all very good human beings. They will do what the team wants, what the captain wants.

“Every format has a different role in cricket’s language. T20 is fun, it is entertainment for the public, and good for getting kids involved. They like coming to watch for three hours, it is good entertainment.”

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