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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Twin targets for UAE at Cricket World Cup Qualifier as West Indies enter unfamiliar territory

The tournament in Zimbabwe will see the national team aim to qualify for the 2019 Cricket World Cup alongside a traditional powerhouse of the game. 

Each franchise in the UAE Twenty20 league will include three UAE cricketers in their squad. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Each franchise in the UAE Twenty20 league will include three UAE cricketers in their squad. Chris Whiteoak / The National

As mission statements go, it felt rather retro. Far removed from the expansionist ideals of other world sports.

It even bore a faint reminder of Fifa, circa 1973, when football’s bosses railed against the idea of increasing their World Cup. They said Europe would not enter if it happened, that it would stage its own one instead, and invite “a few South Americans”. That was over 40 years ago, mind. Much changed when those powers-that-be were voted out almost immediately.

“Our aim is not necessarily to increase the number of members but to improve the standard of those members that we have,” Dave Richardson, the ICC’s chief executive, said in February 2015.

He was explaining the reasoning for the decision to scale back cricket’s World Cup for the next two editions, letting just 10 teams play, with only two of those spots available on the open market, as it were.

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“At the moment, arguably - with all due respect to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - we probably have eight teams that I would regard as competitive,” Richardson said back then.

Well, at least Bangladesh got the hang of it in the intervening three years. They breezed straight into next year’s World Cup, as one of the top eight on the one-day international ladder, leaving West Indies to struggle through qualifying instead.

West Indies. Yep, that West Indies, the winners of the first two World Cups. The side who currently hold World T20 titles in both the men’s and women’s game, plus the 2016 Under 19 winners.

How the mighty are fallen. So instead of picking up a cushy deal to play Pakistan Super League cricket – where a number of their fellow West Indians are, it should not be forgotten – the likes of Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels are in Zimbabwe, duking it out with Papua New Guinea, the UAE, and the rest for a trip to England next year.

Gayle and Samuels had a stand worth 372 at the last World Cup. Gayle became the first player to score a World Cup double century in the process. And now, for the first time, his side are having to qualify to get back there.

Maybe this is how it should be. If West Indies are good enough - and there is no reason to doubt they will be, given the calibre of players they have at their disposal in the Qualifier - then they will show it.

Jason Holder, their captain, seemed confident enough when they arrived in Harare. “It is an opportunity for us to grab some momentum heading into next year’s World Cup, get some games under our belt, just finalise some combinations,” Holder said, while suggesting it was time they won another global gong.

One thing is for sure, though, theirs is a scalp the other sides in Zimbabwe crave. The Caribbean side are in the same group as the UAE, who pushed them close in a rain-affected warm-up match on Thursday in Harare.

It must be quite distracting, but Dougie Brown, the UAE coach, said his side’s focus is on Sunday’s opener against Papua New Guinea, and everything else can wait.

“The players are excited about the whole tournament,” said Brown, who won the 2005 Qualifier as a player with Scotland. “We know we carry the expectations and the hopes of everybody in the UAE. We understand that.

“Yes, it will be great to play against West Indies to challenge ourselves against world-class players. Chris Gayle will be playing for them, Marlon Samuels, and many others.

“The bottom line is, the most important thing for us is to be ready for the first ball of the first game we play, which is against PNG. Getting off to a good start in the tournament is really important.”

Getting one of the two places on offer to play in England next year is not the only target. The UAE have to safeguard the immediate future of the sport in the emirates by retaining one-day international status.

“We are taking one step at a time, which means our first target is to qualify for the Super Six stage,” Rohan Mustafa, the captain, said.

Small steps towards a big goal. An insurmountable one? All of the teams starting out towards big dreams might want to consider the case of Sri Lanka.

Back in 1979, they were the first winners of a World Cup Qualifier. Within 17 years they were champions of the world. Which goes to show, the improbable really can happen, no matter how many obstacles are in the way.