x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The UAE’s cricketers want to make their adopted homeland proud when they take on Namibia in two key games.

Khurram Khan, the long-standing captain of the UAE team, says 'This country has given us a lot ... It feels like home and we want to do something for the country'. That something is qualifying for the World Cup. Pawan Singh / The National
Khurram Khan, the long-standing captain of the UAE team, says 'This country has given us a lot ... It feels like home and we want to do something for the country'. That something is qualifying for the World Cup. Pawan Singh / The National

When the national football team were on the brink of Olympic qualification in February 2011, the coach issued an emotive call to arms.

“Anyone who loves his country will come, no matter the time,” Mahdi Ali said ahead of a fixture against Australia that was one of the most important since the 1990 World Cup.

“Whoever likes his country will need no invitation.”

The supporters turned up in droves to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium and the team won a decisive victory on the road to London 2012.

Two and a half years on, the nation’s cricket team are on the verge of doing something equally significant, namely qualifying for the World Cup.

Yet it is unlikely that Mahdi Ali, or any of the thousands who thronged Al Jazira’s home ground that day will have even a vague awareness of the cricketers.

There has been no jingoistic tub-thumping in the lead up to climax of the lengthy qualifying league.

Earlier this week, when the UAE team faced the same Namibia side that they need to beat at Sharjah on Friday, the crowd amounted to precisely nil.

It would have been soul-sapping, if they were not so used to it.

But are these men not patriots?

Do they care less about the country they represent than the footballers?

Upon taking a career-best seven wickets against the Namibians on Sunday, Ahmed Raza kissed the UAE badge on his shirt.

In a way, it was like a professional footballer would have done after scoring a goal, to persuade his team’s supporters he was one of them.

But this was totally different, too.

It was far more heartfelt.

This was no ostentatious show of loyalty. There was nobody in the stands to see it, anyway.

Plus the action itself was so subtle, he looked as though he was trying to keep it concealed, while surreptitiously wiping his brow.

“It means the world to me,” Raza said. “I’m a Pakistani, but I was born here ... I consider this country as my country.

“I was born here, raised here, played all my cricket here. This country has given me a lot, so I owe everything to them.”

The lack of crowd support for the UAE will be thrown into stark relief when Afghanistan play their matches against Kenya at Sharjah Stadium later this week.

Two wins for the Afghans will clinch the second World Cup qualifying berth from the Netherlands and UAE. As such, they are likely to be cheered on by thousands of expatriate Afghans.

The UAE will never get such a following until the wider population are made aware of a sport that is still regarded as foreign.

“Football is huge here and getting bigger,” Raza said. “What we, as cricket people, need to do is go and build the interest of kids.

“It is very easy to pick up a game if you are young. In an Asian house, the first thing your parents are going to give you is a cricket ball and a bat. That doesn’t happen to Emirati kids. They are given footballs.”

According to Khurram Khan, the long-serving captain, World Cup qualification would help smooth the path towards recognition.

“This country has given a lot to us,” Khurram said. “Some of our players were born here, others of us left other countries to come here, but this has always felt like our country. “It feels like home and we want to do something for the country. We will be very proud if we can do it.

“It will be a dream come true.”

Aaqib Javed, the UAE coach, says his side are committed to appearing at three different World Cups over the near future – the Under 19, 50-over and Twenty20 versions.

“The good thing is, they are enjoying it and they never feel the burden that the coach is killing them,” Aaqib said. “I run with them, I bowl with them, I do everything with them, and that adds a lot to this team.

“I told them that we are committed and we want to play in all three World Cups over the space of the next two years.”

pradley@thenational.ae