Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

UAE cricket 2019 review: Corruption, scandal - and a new generation ready to lead the way forward

UAE cricket was rocked in October by a spate of suspensions of senior players suspected of corruption. But in their absence young guns such as Jonathan Figy, Karthik Meiyappan and Basil Hameed have stepped up to the plate

Basil Hameed scored an unbeaten 63 as the UAE pulled off a seven-wicket win over Scotland in a World Cup League 2 match in Dubai in December. Pawan Singh / The National
Basil Hameed scored an unbeaten 63 as the UAE pulled off a seven-wicket win over Scotland in a World Cup League 2 match in Dubai in December. Pawan Singh / The National

A new broom sweeps clean. That is how it feels at the end of a tumultuous year for UAE cricket.

In the first engagement of 2019, a one-day international series against Nepal, the national team had an average age of 32.5. For the last match of it, against Scotland, it was just over 25.

That is the result of a very big bang. In October, the game here imploded.

Three senior players – Mohammed Naveed, Shaiman Anwar and Qadeer Ahmed – were suspended while the ICC investigates breaches of cricket’s corruption code.

Since then, the game here has been stripped of most vestiges of what it used to look like.

Now five are suspended pending the investigation, including Ghulam Shabber for absconding in the middle of a major tournament. Another, Amir Hayat, is believed to be missing for the same reasons, even though his continued absence remains officially unexplained.

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The selection committee has been dissolved. A new position has been created for an anti-corruption supremo. Somewhat after the horse has bolted, you might think.

Yet somehow, despite it all, the team is already regenerated. It is now choc-full of exciting talent, and signed off the year with a win against one of the outstanding sides in Associate cricket.

“Given what has happened over the year in cricket, it has probably done more good than bad, I would say,” Jonathan Figy, one of the new boys, said after the resounding ODI win against Scotland.

When Scotland reached 138 for no loss in 27 overs at the start of that match, it had felt ominous.

The platform was set. A powerhouse middle order of George Munsey, Richie Berrington and Calum Macleod was still to come.

This is a side that scored 371 in beating England last year. England were world champions not long after.

An experienced UAE side might have winced. But these schoolkids and students do not know enough about the game just yet to realise they were staring down the barrel of a massive deficit.

Collapses happen with greater frequency in schoolboy matches than international ones. So why worry? They could turn it around from here. And so it happened. They made it happen.

Karthik Meiyappan, a 19-year-old leg-spinner and quicksilver fielder, was central to it. In the middle of the turnaround, he suggested his captain – 12 years his senior – move from short-cover to slip. He fancied he could get Berrington caught there. And so he did, two balls later.

That was typical of the confidence shown by all the new recruits this month. Vriitya Aravind thinks nothing of hitting sixes the ball after being hit on the head.

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UAE beat Scotland by seven wickets

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Darius D’Silva plays as a batsmen, then turns out to be one of the best seam bowlers. Basil Hameed was the matchwinner against Scotland. And Figy is so clearly a gem.

While all this was unfolding in the ODI, the UAE Under 19s were practicing on the adjacent field.

They were buzzing for their three colleagues who were playing for the senior team instead of training with them.

Aryan Lakra might have been within his rights for wondering why he was overlooked for promotion himself, as the captain of the U19 side that is heading to the World Cup next month.

Rather than be jealous, though, he preferred to shout his encouragement for his mates instead.

It felt like everyone in the game here was pulling in the same direction. Which marks quite the change, if the charges laid against those involved in the corruption investigation are found to be true.

It is going to require a big commitment from UAE cricket to keep this new team together. There has always been a glitch in the cricket system in this country for players between the age of 18 to 23.

Often, they move abroad for further education and are never seen again.

Flying back Figy and Darius D’Silva from their studies in England and Australia respectively is a costly undertaking.

Previously, the thinking had been that there are enough good players based in this country to stock the national team.

But these are players of rare talent. They cannot be allowed to slip through the cracks.

There are others out there, too. Yodhin Punja, a seam bowler of great promise who is at university in Wales, might have been worth a recall to the side, were it not for a serious shoulder injury he suffered earlier in the year.

About new brooms sweeping clean. The full saying goes that an old one knows the corners.

Experience can be valuable, too. The remaining established players left in the team after the corruption purge certainly have their share of that.

At the start of 2019, Ahmed Raza, Rohan Mustafa and Rameez Shahzad were banned from the national team. At the end of it, they are the ones tasked with getting the new prospects up to speed.

This time last year, the Emirates Cricket Board hung that trio out to dry for the heinous crime of writing some strident, heartfelt tweets.

Ahmed Raza, left, was elevated to UAE captain by Dougie Brown in the wake of the corruption scandal. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ahmed Raza and Rohan Mustafa have their task cut out during the T20 World Cup qualifier. Chris Whiteoak / The National

They were given eight-week bans for criticising facilities at a tournament in Pakistan. Mustafa lost the captaincy as a result.

Now Raza is at the helm, and he has already broken down cultural barriers with his new colleagues.

Instead of the young players calling him and the other seniors “sir”, as they did when they first came into the side, all are addressed by their nicknames instead.

In truth, Raza was given a hospital pass when he was made captain in the wake of the corruption scandal.

He is used to it. In his first stint in the job, back in 2015, he was put in charge of a side in transition. Then, as now, he had to oversee a team full of debutants.

The atmosphere now, though, is completely different. The future for him and them is bright.

“I’m five years older as well now,” Raza said. “I’m wiser for it, and I can look at the flipside of things.

“I look at the positive in most things now. It is how I have become over the years.

“I don’t think of it as though I have to take care of them. I just want to pass on what I can to them.

“Having youth in your squad is a great luxury. They are the future. You never know in cricket how long you can push for.

“Three of them are going to be going to the World Cup, and they can bring that experience back to the national set up. They are great kids.”

Updated: December 24, 2019 12:08 PM

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