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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Asian Cup 2018 Qualifier: UAE's Rahul Bhatia hoping to follow in the footsteps of another bespectacled cricket teenager

The UAE-born bowler shares similarities with New Zealand's Daniel Vettori, not least his left-arm spin. He speaks to Paul Radley ahead of his first overseas trip with the UAE national team for the Asia Cup 2018 Qualifier

Rahul Bhatia trains with the UAE national team at the ICC Academy in Dubai ahead of the trip to Malaysia for the Asia Cup Qualifier. Satish Kumar for The National
Rahul Bhatia trains with the UAE national team at the ICC Academy in Dubai ahead of the trip to Malaysia for the Asia Cup Qualifier. Satish Kumar for The National

As an aspiring left-arm spinner, Rahul Bhatia, the new teenaged recruit in the UAE squad, had some obvious role models growing up.

He is an Indian national, so Ravindra Jadeja was always going to be near the top of the list.

Then there was Daniel Vettori. The parallels to the New Zealand great are many for the Dubai-raised spinner. For example, Bhatia hopes to debut for his own senior national team, when the UAE play in the Asia Cup Qualifier in Malaysia, while still a teenager, just as Vettori did 21 years ago.

And Bhatia, too, wears glasses while playing. He does so neither as a show of hero-worship for Vettori, nor as a statement of hipster cool, but rather out of necessity.

Vettori played in glasses because of the discomfort caused to him by the disinfectant solution applied to contact lenses. “I think I am allergic to that, too,” Bhatia said.

The bespectacled youngster is on his first tour with the senior team, having impressing at the Under 19 version of the Asia Cup Qualifier at the end of last year.

He took 18 wickets in five games in that qualifying event, which was played on the same grounds in Kuala Lumpur where UAE will be bidding for success over the coming 10 days.

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The winners of the six-team tournament will get to play against the continent’s leading sides in the Asia Cup, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi next month.

“It is very exciting that the Asia Cup tournament is here in UAE,” Bhatia, who dovetails playing cricket with studying for a degree at Heriot Watt University in Dubai.

“Playing in your home town against such countries would be an amazing opportunity.”

The presence of the likes of Bhatia and Fahad Nawaz, an 18-year-old allrounder making his second trip with the senior team, shows such opportunities are becoming increasingly open to young players growing up in the UAE.

Whatever tournament the national team play in, their squad routinely has the highest average age. Generally, in the past this has been because of a reliance on players who have arrived from overseas, and had to serve a lengthy residential qualifying period before joining the representative team.

Now, though, the profile of the squad is altering. Rohan Mustafa, the captain, Rameez Shahzad and Ahmed Raza – all grew up together in UAE. Now age 29, 30 and 29 respectively, they have been the core of the side for some while now.

Yodhin Punja is on standby for the UAE team headed to Malaysia for the Asia Cup Qualifier. Satish Kumar for The National
Yodhin Punja is on standby for the UAE team headed to Malaysia for the Asia Cup Qualifier. Satish Kumar for The National

UAE-raised teenagers Bhatia and Nawaz have been elevated to the senior squad directly as a result of their exploits for the national U19 team. And just further down the age scale, talented schoolboys Yodhin Punja and Jonathan Figy also trained with the senior team this summer. The former is on standby for the Qualifier in Malaysia, should injury occur.

Each of the young prospects may be a little way from displacing the established players in the senior XI.

But Dougie Brown, the UAE coach, is sure they have a key role to play in the immediate future of the national team.

“We are assuming spin is going to play a fairly big part in Malaysia,” Brown said.

“That being the case, we know we need to cover our spin bowling resources. Whether we play three spinners in a game or not remains to be seen, but we need to have cover in case the likes of Imran Haider or Ahmed Raza pick up a niggle.

“[Bhatia] has done really well. In the Asia Cup U19, he was one of the leading wicket-takers in the whole tournament. Based on what we have seen, he has a lot to offer us.

“He is still a young player learning his trade, but he is coming into an environment that has been very buoyant for the last little while, and it is a great opportunity for him, even if he doesn’t play, to learn.”

Updated: August 27, 2018 12:38 PM

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