DUBAI // The UAE will go up against a familiar foe, an old friend, and - despite playing on home territory - a partisan crowd from noon today as they seek to claim a place at the World Twenty20. After breezing through the group stage of this competition with three consecutive wins, they now know only victory over Afghanistan will do, having lost to the No 1 seeds, Ireland, last night.
Win, and they will be through to tonight's final. More significantly, victory would give them one of the two places on offer at cricket's most popular global competition, in the West Indies starting at the end of April. Between them and that goal stands an Afghan side who have been swept to the brink of qualification on a wave of goodwill from all over the sporting world, not to mention their hefty support base in the UAE.
"Support will not make a difference so long as we keep playing well," said Khurram Khan, the UAE captain. "They get a lot of support, but we will have to cope with it. It is strange - home ground and no-one is supporting you. "Afghanistan have played a lot of matches in Dubai so they know the wickets well. They are just very good wickets, so there isn't really a home advantage. "The Afghans have been playing very well, but so have the guys on our team. It all comes down to who is stronger on the day, and who does the basics best."
Khurram's side were beaten by 22 runs by the resurgent Irish, despite another outstanding knock from Saqib Ali, this time worth 63 from 49 balls. "We only had one good partnership, between Saqib and Abdul Rehman, which nearly brought us close," added Khurram. "When you are chasing a bigger target you need good partnerships." When the UAE were playing their warm-up game of hand-hockey, ahead of the game against the Irish, they were briefly interrupted by the Afghan coach, Kabir Khan, coming over to wish them luck.
Kabir was in charge of the UAE side for three months until the start of 2008, and he sought out Khurram, the long-serving all-rounder who was his captain, to give him his best wishes. "A lot of their main players were my main players," said Kabir. "I know about their weaknesses and strengths, but in Twenty20 cricket you can't plan a lot. The plans often go totally to waste. "They are very talented. They have good, new youngsters, and it shows in their results. They played three and won three [in the group phase]. They are determined, they exploit the home conditions and they come very strong at each opposition they face."
Despite being cheered on by the best part of 3,000 supporters, the Afghans went down to the Netherlands by four wickets in the opening game yesterday. Given the make or break nature of today's meeting with the host nation, they are likely to be backed by a similarly sizeable following at Sports City here. Kabir believes that, as well as the fact his side beat the UAE in the ACC T20 final last year, makes his side the favourites to progress.
"I think we have an edge over them psychologically," said the former Pakistan bowler. "The crowd will play a role again. They create a tremendous amount of pressure on the opposition, by celebrating and screaming and banging their drums. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org