Afzal Khan breathes a sigh of fulfilment when reflecting on his son’s selection for the UAE’s T20 World Cup squad, and says, without a hint of irony: “It has been a long journey.”
Outsiders might scoff at the very idea. The World Cup, which starts on Sunday in Australia, with UAE facing Netherlands on the opening evening, will be over before Aayan Afzal Khan even turns 17. He will be keeping up with his distance learning online school courses while he is at the event.
He debuted for the senior national team against Bangladesh at Dubai International Stadium earlier this month aged 16 years and 314 days.
To suggest he has had a long paper round seems fanciful. If anything, he is so young he should still be doing a paper round. So how long can his journey really have been?
And yet his father knows better than anyone the hours that have been invested in getting him to this point.
To the point where, if he makes the starting line up in Geelong, Aayan will become the youngest player to feature in a men’s T20 World Cup – breaking the record of Pakistan’s Mohammed Amir.
And to the point where, if he is faced with any of the world’s fastest bowlers or fiercest batters in Australia, his father will have no concerns whatsoever.
“I bowl at him myself with the sidearm [bowling aid] at 130-140kph, and at the age of seven or eight we removed the fear,” Afzal said.
“Even at that age he was practicing with the big boys, the Under 19s. They would put pace and bounce on the ball and he was already judging it properly.
“I was never scared. The fear was removed from him. I asked him if he wanted an arm-guard or chest guard, and he said, ‘No, I don’t want these things.’
“He always says, ‘Don’t worry about me,’ and that gives me confidence. He is tough. When he gets injured, he doesn’t show it.”
The fresh-faced teen could pass for being far younger than 16. He has been playing against the leading players in the country at senior level since he was 14, and impressed as soon as he started out in men’s senior cricket.
Still, it was a shock when he was named in the squad for the UAE’s trip to the Australia this month, in what will be their second appearance at a T20 World Cup.
He only debuted after that announcement, in a hastily assembled T20 international series against Bangladesh. Immediately, though, he looked the part in celebrated company.
“My dream for him when he started cricket at the age of five was for him to play international cricket,” father Afzal said.
“He has worked hard, and also myself and my wife [Shahista] have worked hard with him to get him to the national team.
“His journey was a long one. He has played a lot of domestic cricket – A-Division, B-Division, C-Division – and most nights we would come home late, at 3am, from watching his matches and working on correcting his mistakes.”
“But I didn’t ever think he’d be playing internationally at the age of 16. I was really surprised when he got the call to say he had been selected for the UAE men’s team. It has been hard work for us, so it is great to see it has paid off for him like this.”
Afzal himself was at the office in Sharjah, where he works as a credit controller, when his son received the call to tell him he was off to the World Cup.
He hopes to make the trip to Australia himself, but has yet to book flights. He and his wife already have one cherished memory, though.
“We were really happy to see him make his debut in front of us against Bangladesh,” Afzal said.
“Our dream came true. His mum and dad saw him given his cap and give a good performance against the Bangladesh team.
“It was really emotional. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. He is still just 16. It was great for us.
“All my family and friends, and all the Goans, are very, very happy.”
Aayan was born in Goa, where his father had been a cricketer of distinction, before the family moved to the UAE when he was two. He started showing an interest in the sport soon after.
“When he was around four years old he was watching matches on TV, and he was using his spoon as a bat,” Afzal said.
“He was watching Sachin Tendulkar. It was obvious he liked it, so I thought why not work with him. The talent was there, so we started at that age, with a plastic bat.”
He enrolled Aayan in Desert Cubs, the prolific cricket academy that has set a variety of future UAE players on the path to international cricket.
It was there that his father hatched an unconventional plan with the head coach. Aayan has made his name so far in cricket as a left-arm spinner – even though that is unnatural to him. He writes, and even throws, right-handed.
“He’s naturally right-handed, but I made him left-handed,” Afzal said.
“I wanted to make him a pace bowler, like [former India seamer] Irfan Pathan. Then a coach from Desert Cubs said we should make him a spinner. They showed him the grip, and there is good scope when you are a left-arm spinner.
“He was watching [India spin-bowler] Ravindra Jadeja’s videos. It has worked out for us.”
All of UAE cricket are hopeful it works out in the long term, too. CP Rizwan, the national team captain, has been a teammate of Aayan’s at club level with Bukhatir XI in Sharjah, and has been impressed with what he has seen.
“There is no doubt about his potential, it was just a matter of whether he could execute at that bigger stage, which he did against Bangladesh [scoring 25 off 17 balls and taking 1-16],” Rizwan said.
“I am very hopeful about his future. I am sure he can do wonders for UAE cricket going forward.”
Aayan is enrolled at the Sharjah Cricket Academy. His peers will be willing him to success when they tune in for the UAE’s World Cup fixtures, starting when they face the Netherlands in Geelong on Sunday, October 16. And they will not be the only ones.
“Aayan’s big-stage potential was on display for us to see right from day one,” said Khalaf Bukhatir, the chief executive of Sharjah Cricket.
“He’s been a consistent youngster at our academy, and we’re proud to have believed in him.
“I adore his confidence and I’m sure he has a long way to go. Congratulations to him for making it to the UAE men’s senior team - and that, too, for a prestigious event like a World Cup.
“I wish him all the very best. Our doors are always open for him.”