x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A national dilemma for UAE's selectors

Officials have signalled their wariness over letting fledgling players enter a tournament which will also include the "strongest available sides" from the subcontinent.

The Emirati cricketers who aspire to represent their homeland at the Asian Games in China later this year at least achieved one goal when they re-ignited their long-running feud with the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) this week. They made it into the Arabic press. "Let's join hands and help our boys," lobbied Al Bayan, after a press conference in which an all-Emirati cricket club, the UAE Nationals, had laid bare their frustrations with the governing body.

The Emirati players want the chance to participate in Guangzhou in November. Regulations state that only passport holders are permitted to represent their country at the Games. As such, all barring one (the off-spinner Salman Farooq) of the current UAE national squad, whose players regularly compete in ICC-sanctioned tournaments, are ineligible. With the clock ticking to next Wednesday's deadline, the Emiratis who aim to fill the breach felt it was time to give vent to their feelings. "The UAE nationals want to control themselves," added Al Bayan.

The headline in Al Ittihad was similar. "The UAE national team are all expatriates and nationals are not allowed," it read. They went on to quote Sultan al Balooshi, a cricket-loving Emirati from Al Ain who hopes to play at the Games, as saying: "Our dreams will not die." The story was a page lead in both newspapers, which cannot have happened too often when it comes to cricket.

There is nothing like lots of people standing around and clamouring to be heard for arousing curiosity. Hopefully the coverage will result in more interest in cricket. Whether it will be enough to get the Emiratis a flight to China remains to be seen. Cricket officials have signalled their wariness over letting fledgling players enter a tournament which will also include the "strongest available sides" from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

They want to save face, as well as bones. Dilawar Mani, the chief executive of the Emirates Cricket Board, spelled out his concerns over the physical safety of Emiratis when faced with Test-level players from the continent's top cricket nations. It is a valid concern and one that is supported by a moment of infamy in the annals of cricket here. When the UAE made their so far lone appearance at a World Cup, in 1996 on the subcontinent, their captain, Sultan Zarawani, was hit on the head by Allan Donald, the South African fast-bowler.

Zarawani had done so much in terms of both playing and administration, to get his country recognised as a cricketing force. As such, it is a pity that he is remembered most for getting in the way of a high-speed projectile from one of the game's fastest bowlers, having refused a helmet. Zarawani lived to tell the tale, but has long since been lost to the game. He is not the only one. The Emirati talent drain away from cricket is alarming.

Two years ago there were four Emiratis in the national team; now there is one. More alarmingly, the UAE had to withdraw from a recent Under 16 tournament because the side could not meet the criteria of including three passport holders. Administrators here have often used these as a examples of a lack of appetite for the game amongst nationals. Others might regard it as a failing of theirs for not sustaining interest. Expatriates recycling a sport in their adopted home is one thing. Getting a different culture to embrace the game is the challenge and one that seems to be failing here. @Email:pradley@thenational.ae