SHARJAH // What a difference 12 months make.
This time last year Aaqib Javed surprisingly turned in his papers with the Pakistan Cricket Board, left behind international cricket's mainstream and opted to become the head coach of the UAE instead.
Back then, the only beeping sounds that would have been heard around the nets at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, the national team's training base, would have been those of SMS messages arriving on the coach's telephone. "Sorry, boss, can't make training –something has come up at the office."
When Aaqib first arrived from his role as the Pakistan bowling coach, with relationships with his new colleagues as yet embryonic, he used to entertain himself by running laps of the boundary.
It was telling. He was not trying to show off, but while the former Pakistan pace bowler could run endlessly, his players would fall by the wayside after two or three rounds.
A year on and the most prominent beeping noises at training now are those of the beep test, which the national team undertake on a weekly basis.
Rather than being dreaded, the players embrace it. Some have lost up to 12kgs in the time Aaqib has been here.
Given that Ireland are so far advanced from their rivals at this level of the game, everyone knows the UAE are going to need a special effort to take anything from their series of matches against them, starting with the first-class match in Sharjah today. Happily, effort is something the players of the national team specialise in these days.
"When I joined UAE, people said there was nothing here, that it was hell for cricket and asking why I wanted to come," Aaqib said.
"How can you motivate people who work in the office all day? Then in the evening you tell them to run.
"I told them to give me six months. If your efficiency in the office hasn't improved, if your game hasn't improved, if your parents, wife, children have not appreciated it, then stop.
"They thought at that time that if they put effort in they would get tired. I said to them, 'No - the more you give the more you get'."
The powers that be here are calling the current period "Mad March," with 24 days of international cricket to be played among the non-Test nations across the country in less than a month.
In addition, some of England's leading county sides will contend a Twenty20 competition in Dubai, while the season's curtain-raiser between MCC and Warwickshire, the English county champions, is again to be staged in Abu Dhabi.
The overworked groundsmen across the country have an easy shift compared to the UAE players, though.
Depending on results, the national side are likely to have matches on 14 of the next 23 days, with the ACC Twenty20 Cup in Nepal to follow the series against Ireland.
They have been fortified for the challenge ahead by the coach's fitness demands. The benchmark he sets is for the players to run 4kms in under 20 minutes.
At present 70 per cent of the squad can hit the target, while Rohan Mustafa, the fittest player in the side, regularly posts 18 minutes for the distance.
Ahmed Raza, the left-arm spinner who is along with Mustafa the best fielder in the team, has lost 10kgs on Aaqib's watch.
He has been rewarded for his commitment and the tactical nous he has exhibited over a long stint in the national team, with the captaincy for the trip to Nepal. "All the hard work is paying off," the Sharjah-born spinner said.
So all those prophesies about the UAE being a wasteland for cricket which foretold Aaqib's mission here were not quite on the mark?
"It is not – it is beautiful," the coach said. "It is about you. You can't motivate everyone, but you can motivate many.
"I haven't even talked to one person rudely and said, 'Why didn't you come to practice? Hey, it is your choice, man. Come - and if you enjoy it, do it.'
"What is willpower? It is when you are tired, but you are telling yourself to keep going, keep going. Once you have trained your mind like this, sitting in the office taking pressure is nothing."
Captain hopes UAE shift will ignite hapless Scotland side
Gordon Drummond, the Scotland captain, is hoping a change of scenery upon arrival at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday will help end his side’s woes at the hands of Afghanistan.
Scotland were whitewashed by the Afghans in a series of two Twenty20 matches and two one-day internationals in Sharjah last week.
The defeats have dented their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup, and now their focus shifts to attempting to stay ahead of their nominal hosts in second place in the four-day Intercontinental Cup competition.
"We can’t hide from the fact they have been better than us [in the limited-overs matches]," Drummond said.
"Abu Dhabi has different conditions and a different wicket so, going in to the four-dayer, we will see. Hopefully it will suit us better."
Afghanistan will take some stopping, judged by their form in Sharjah. They arrived in the UAE ahead of this series having had an intensive three-month period of preparation, which included playing 13 matches against some of the leading sides in Pakistan.
"It has paid off and you can see the difference in our players," Kabir Khan, the Afghanistan coach, said. "Slowly we are working towards our targets."
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