Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 September 2019

UAE return to Zimbabwe for ODI series filled with happy memories from last visit to Harare

On their last visit to Harare 13 months ago, the national team achieved one their greatest moments by beating the Test-playing nation in the World Cup Qualifier

UAE captain Mohammed Naveed and coach Dougie Brown. Chris Whiteoak / The National
UAE captain Mohammed Naveed and coach Dougie Brown. Chris Whiteoak / The National

When the UAE players walk down the steps of the pavilion at the Harare Sports Club on Wednesday to take the field for the first one-day international against Zimbabwe, they will know a challenge awaits.

Their task is one they have managed just once in 26 years of trying – namely, to take an ODI win off a Test-playing nation.

Happily, they will also be filled with feelings of cheer and optimism. The last time they played on this field, 13 months ago, they achieved exactly that on arguably the greatest day for UAE cricket.

The national team did not quite reach the ultimate end goal at the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe’s capital last year.

They did, though, have a significant effect on the outcome of the competition. Had Zimbabwe beaten them, they would now have been preparing for a trip to England for the main event, rather than for a four-ODI series which will largely go unnoticed beyond the two countries involved.

In an exhilarating, portentous fixture that was interrupted by dramatic weather, and played in front of packed, pulsating stands, the UAE were three-run winners.

For the victors, it meant everything and nothing. They were still not going to the World Cup. But respect had been earned.

“It is great to be back in Harare as we have some great memories, and I have goosebumps remembering that last match,” Mohammed Naveed, who is now the UAE captain, said.

Naveed was man of the match in that fixture, for a typically free-spirited late cameo with the bat, three wickets with the ball, and for defending 15 in a nerve-shredding final over.

“That would be one of the best moments of my career, but there are a lot more to come and to work for,” Naveed said.

“That last over was a special moment in that match, and winning the game gave us a lot of confidence for the future.

“The crowd was amazing last year. It is always good to play in front of such an electric crowd, and we are looking forward to a good turnout this time.”

For Zimbabwe, that game was like the end of the world. Graeme Cremer, their captain, was summarily axed. It was the start of a process of events that say him relocate to Dubai, and, ironically, even help out with coaching the UAE team in the weeks leading up to this series.

The fall was all the more dramatic given the goodwill the home team had whipped up during a great run in the competition, which included rousing wins over Afghanistan and Ireland, and a tie against Afghanistan.

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“For a qualifying event for us, with how close all the games were, we made some great memories, with the tied game, and some of the games we pulled back from nowhere,” Cremer said. “Obviously, it was a disappointing end to the tournament. That can happen.

"It was a good time to leave after that, to be honest. The whole tournament was really emotional. I will always remember that.”

Zimbabwe’s form in that tournament fuelled captivating scenes beyond the boundary. For the game against UAE, the gates at the Harare Sports Club were shut midway through as no more spectators could safely be crammed in.

“The crowds were amazing throughout that tournament, but for that UAE game they turned out in their numbers,” Cremer said.

“It was heart-breaking for us, but also for them. It felt like we had let them down from the position we were in. It was sad, but that can happen in cricket.”

The singing and dancing in the stands for that fixture even served to inspire the UAE players.

Amir Hayat, a fast-bowler, took a stunning one-handed catch, while Qadeer Ahmed, his fellow seamer, thrived fielding on the boundary rope in front of the most raucous section on the crowd.

“I used to play tape-ball cricket, and when you play tournaments in the villages, there can be huge crowds,” said Qadeer, who took three wickets as UAE prepared for this series with a five-wicket win over the Chairman’s XI on Monday.

“On that day, I don’t know why, but I was enjoying it a lot. I can’t remember hearing the crowd say anything to me, other than towards the end, when they were requesting us to lose the match, to leave the ball to go for four, that sort of thing.

“I really enjoyed that crowd, and I don’t think any player would find it a distraction. I think in 99 per cent of the cases, if the crowd are against you, you play better.”

Updated: April 9, 2019 12:28 PM

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