DUBAI // Ahmed Raza declared "the road to the World Cup in Twenty20 starts here" after he was named as the caretaker captain of the UAE for the ACC Twenty20 Cup in Nepal at the end of this month.
The national team have bitter memories of this competition. When it was last played, a lone defeat cost them the chance of qualifying for last year's World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
This time around they are certain to avoid that fate. The UAE have been handed an automatic place at the final qualifying competition later this year, on account of the fact it will be staged on home soil.
As such, the national team have some breathing room to experiment with a younger squad of players than the established ones who will spearhead their 50 over and four-day series against Ireland in the intervening three weeks.
Raza, the 24-year-old spinner who has long been seen by Emirates Cricket Board officials as the captain-in-waiting behind the long-serving Khurram Khan, has been handed the chance to lead.
The left-arm orthodox bowler regards the tournament in Nepal as a chance for the national team to ready themselves for the greater challenges ahead.
"If you are thinking long term, the journey to the World Cup starts here," said the Sharjah-born bowler. "My personal aim, and that of all the individuals, is the qualifier in November and the World Cup after that.
"We are looking to achieve that as it hasn't been done in the UAE since 1996. This is our chance now."
None of the UAE's core of influential senior players are part of the new-look tour party to Nepal, which could be a mixed blessing for Raza.
The national team will undoubtedly miss the firepower of Saqib Ali, who is injured, and the rested captain Khurram.
However, the UAE rarely get the chance to plan the succession to Khurram's captaincy, which has been more or less constant for the best part of a decade, so Raza will benefit from time spent with the new guard.
"The senior players have played a lot of cricket," Raza said. "When they think something is going wrong, they would tell me, but I would still have to stand by my decisions.
"If I think something is wrong, I will not accept that. Sometimes I would go and tell them my thoughts, but when there are the likes of Saqib, Arshad Ali and the other guys, you tend to take their advice. I have learnt a lot from them having played with them for eight or so years."
Aaqib Javed, the UAE coach, says Raza's elevation is just reward for a player who has bought in to the new work ethic he has tried to infuse into the national squad since arriving here last year.
"Ahmed is a leader who can inspire the team through his hard work, and he is also a thinking cricketer – for a youngster – so I think it is very good for UAE cricket," Aaqib said.
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