Rohan Mustafa's men have their livelihood at stake – and not just qualification for next month's World Cup Qualifier, Paul Radley writes from Namibia
UAE's match against Namibia more than just about keeping 2019 World Cup dream alive
Midway through India’s innings against South Africa in Tuesday’s one-day international in Port Elizabeth, new Proteas spinner Tabraiz Shamsi sent down a few dot balls, one after another.
The commentators were all agreed it was building pressure on the batsman. Which, of course, it was. To a point.
But, really? Actual real pressure? This was the fifth of six one-day internationals between two sides who, realistically, would suffer little if they lost the match, or the series. Maybe the players might miss out on a few rupees or rand in win bonuses.
Clearly, pressure takes different forms. But what is the worst that could happen? The batsman could get out next ball, or miss a couple, or hit nine sixes in a row, and it really would not matter a jot in the grand scheme of things.
In the worst case scenario, they might get dropped. Their earning potential might dip, but they would not actually lose their livelihood, based on that one performance.
Consider, then, the situation facing the UAE’s cricketers on Wednesday against Namibia. A variety of players and administrators are sweating on the outcome, and not because they fancy a trip to England for some cricket next summer.
A long way ahead of time, UAE coach Dougie Brown termed these two months – this World Cricket League followed by the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in March – the most important cricket the UAE team will ever have played.
It felt a questionable point back then. The UAE have played at World Cups in the past. They have been to World Cup Qualifiers before, and tasted both success and failure.
But in reality, there is no debate at all. This is the edge of the abyss for UAE cricket.
All the additional funding the ICC have provided since the UAE went to the last World Cup – and, more relevantly, landed one-day international status – has been gratefully received. And – the two defeats this week notwithstanding – evidence suggests it has been judiciously used.
Taking it away, or significantly reducing it, if that is what would come to pass, hardly bears thinking about. The Emirates Cricket Board introduced a professional programme 18 months ago, meaning players, for the first time, are employed by the board.
If the worst did happen, dirhams would have to be saved somewhere. It stands to reason that a sudden cut in funding would jeopardise the jobs of those players. Or coaches. Or paid administrators. The high-performance programme, which has grown out of all recognition in the recent past, would retract.
“Our lives are kind of riding on the last game,” UAE spin bowler Ahmed Raza said. And he is one of the ones with a career away from cricket, who gets additional income via his part-timer retainer contract with the UAE.
Brown said “we are scrapping for our lives” and later suggested on social media that “if anyone wants to know what pressure is, be involved with a team at an ICC Associate tournament”. This from somebody who has had to bowl to Brian Lara in his pomp, on a Barbados featherbed, in one-day international cricket.
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Happily for those invested in UAE cricket, the players themselves are generally betraying few visible signs of tension.
When Rameez Shahzad took a scintillating boundary catch to change the course of the must-win game against Oman last time out, he celebrated it with typical insouciance.
When Rohan Mustafa hit the stumps directly to affect a run out shortly after, to reinforce the advantage for UAE, his body language said: “Meh, standard – I do that all the time.”
When Mohammed Naveed won the game with some fine pace bowling, wicketkeeper Ghulam Shabber was more fussed about remembering to collect his helmet than he was in celebrating the win.
Naveed himself sees the funny side in everyone stressing. “Believe me, I have no tension,” he said, very believably.
So, if nails are being bitten to the quick ahead of judgement day in Windhoek, at least the players’ fingers should still be in full working order.