Saleem Raza: UAE's 1996 Cricket World Cup hero remembers the glory days amid a life of struggle
Top-scorer and player of the match in the UAE's only World Cup win, Raza has since fallen on harder times with failing eyesight brought on by hereditary diabetes
For some, success at World Cups can be life-changing.
Would Imran Khan be Pakistan’s prime minister now if he had not captained the country’s cricket team to glory in 1992? Perhaps, but it is certainly a handy entry on his CV.
When Kapil Dev did similar in 1983, it altered not just his life, but the course of cricket history. The fact India is the seat of power in the game now largely can be traced back to that tournament 36 years ago.
Even one-off days in the sun can have lasting effects. Kevin O’Brien, the Irishman who holds the record for the fastest century in World Cups, says that day against England in 2011 was transformative for him.
Others are not so lucky. Saleem Raza was the man of the match when the UAE claimed their sole win to date at a World Cup, against the Netherlands in Lahore in 1996.
He scored 84 to inspire a seven-wicket win in the first official one-day international between sides from beyond the Test sphere. In the process, he hit six sixes in his innings, at a time when hitting six sixes in an innings was a rare feat.
Now, 23 years on, the champion of UAE cricket’s greatest day is unemployed. Since losing the job he held in Abu Dhabi for nearly 29 years in 2017, he is back at home in Lahore trying to provide for his family while meeting medical costs for his failing eyesight, which has been brought on by hereditary diabetes.
“Diabetes runs in the family - both my parents had it,” Raza, 54, said on the telephone from Lahore, over the din of heavy rain on the roof of his house.
“Two years ago, I began to a struggle at work after all of a sudden I started to have trouble with both eyes.
"I had prepared to visit Pakistan to get some treatment when my employers terminated my contract. So I returned home in bad shape, with the kids being young, too.”
Raza, who has four daughters, has been able to lean on support from some well-connected friends.
Misbah-ul-Haq, who Raza befriended after recruiting him for Ramadan, night-cricket in Abu Dhabi, long before he became famous as Pakistan’s captain, helped raise substantial funds for the medical treatment.
Abdul Qadir, the great Pakistan leg-spinner who was a clubmate of Raza’s in their early days in Lahore, has helped, too – and even introduced him to prime minister Imran.
“This helped me get one of my eyes operated upon and a lens fixed,” Raza said. “I am still undergoing treatment. It is an ongoing process. I get injections for both eyes, each costing me 15,000 Pakistan rupees [Dh363]. This is a six-month procedure, and I have four more months to go before I am done with them.”
Raza only stumbled – almost literally – on the root of his condition when he was playing a social cricket match in the capital two years ago.
“I actually had no idea my problem was diabetes,” he said. “I was fielding during a match in 2017 in Abu Dhabi – when my crisis had already begun – and I dived for the ball and got a nasty cut on my shin, which required stitches.
“When I got my blood pressure and sugar levels checked, I was told I had diabetes. I said, ‘That's impossible’, so they showed me the report.
“Thereafter they put me on insulin. That helped, but by then my eyes had been affected. It was like I had become blind. I couldn't see a thing. My vision was cloudy.
“It was then determined that there was no option other than to get an operation done to get lenses on. That's when I started to receive all this support.”
The troubles of today could not be further removed from the glories of his younger days, playing cricket in the UAE.
Raza had been a player of great promise in his homeland, and was even part of Pakistan’s national team for matches against West Indies and England.
He was one of five outstanding players competing for one of the two opening berths for Pakistan. Ramiz Raja and Saeed Anwar were the two who were generally selected, so Raza opted to expand his horizons for cricket and employment.
Sharjah cricket was at its zenith at the time, and he moved to the UAE, at the suggestion of his close friend Shahzad Altaf, a colleague in the 1996 UAE side, who had made the move some time previously.
“I played for them [Sharjah] for a year, without a job,” Raza said. “They used to pay me Dh400 per match, and that was enough to get by for a week. I was also looking for a job, and I got one at Etihad.”
Domestic cricket was blossoming, thanks almost exclusively to the recruiting of talented players from the subcontinent by cricket-loving employers.
Even though international cricket regularly visited Sharjah, the merit of the newly-formed UAE team remained a complete unknown to their rivals.
When they arrived at the 1994 World Cup qualifier in Kenya – with the UAE’s tour costs underwritten by captain Sultan Zarawani – the mystery surrounding them worked in their favour.
“No one knew anything about this dark horse, UAE, while the likes of Kenya, Bangladesh and Netherlands had matured cricket-wise,” Raza said.
“We were essentially a group of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players who had played good cricket in their home countries before. But the team were not really rated, with some even wondering 'What country is this?'
“For instance, the Kenyans didn't know about the UAE, or where this UAE was. They knew about Sharjah and that cricket gets played there, but they didn't know the players. However, we were mature and experienced having played elsewhere.”
UAE breezed through the competition, winning nine matches in a row, including the final against hosts Kenya, to seal a World Cup debut two years later.
For Raza, that meant a return to his hometown, as UAE played two group matches in Lahore. The second of them was against a Netherlands side the UAE had beaten in the semi-final of the qualifier in Kenya.
“Both teams were sat next to each other at breakfast, and the Holland guys were calling our game the 'Bottom Cup final',” Raza said.
“Our group had such big teams as New Zealand, England, South Africa, we couldn't even dream of beating them.
“So there was bound to be competition between the bottom two sides, with the aim to win at least one match.
“At breakfast, I told Holland fast bowler Paul-Jan Bakker, 'When you bowl, I'll send the ball out of the ground in the first over'. I hit him for two sixes in his first two overs.
“We were told if one of our batsmen scored a hundred, he would be given Dh100,000.
“When I heard about it, I said the aim was to win the match. Anyway, I got out on 84. But they paid Dh50,000 because we won. Which was the point, right? To win.”
It might be pushing it to suggest it inspired a generation of UAE cricketers, but some did take note.
“When I started playing back in 1999 in Abu Dhabi, I played against him [Raza],” said Amjad Javed, a Dubai-born fast-bowler who was in the side the next time UAE played at a World Cup, in 2015.
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“I scored 80 in that match, and I didn’t know who he was until he came and congratulated me. I was 18 then, and my teammates told me about him, and I was like, ‘He really plays for UAE’.
“He was the first one I had met who represented the national team, and from that day I started believing I could also make it happen one day.”
Raza and his 1996 teammates had hoped that would be the start of something for the game here, but it took UAE 19 years to get back to a World Cup.
“We thought of this as a historic moment for the country and the game,” Raza said. “We continued to play for another eight years, but we had no sponsors. I didn't have so much of a problem since I had the support of sponsors but we [the team] didn't get a penny.
“We missed qualifying for two World Cups during that time. If we work hard and perform well in the game but don't receive anything from it, what's the point of playing?
“We have all been there to find work - although in my case I was called to go play for the UAE. The first four to five years were great. But it went bad after 1996.”
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Updated: May 24, 2019 05:40 PM