x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Debutant Palekar checks in for UAE against Afghanistan

The left-handed batsman, a replacement for the injured Saqib Ali, scores a quickfire 76 against Afghanistan, the defending champions, in on day one of their Intercontinental Cup game in Sharjah.

UAE's Bakhtiyar Palekar, centre, would not have played against Afghanistan on Wednesday had Saqib Ali been fit.
UAE's Bakhtiyar Palekar, centre, would not have played against Afghanistan on Wednesday had Saqib Ali been fit.

SHARJAH // Bakhtiyar Palekar served notice of his worth to UAE cricket with a blistering early salvo on his international four-day debut, to set the tone against Afghanistan.

The national team will start day two of their nominal "away" match against the defending Intercontinental Cup champions on Thursday morning in good health on 361 for eight.

Palekar would not have been playing in this game had Saqib Ali, the seasoned UAE batsman, not suffered a knee injury last week.

He already knew he was under pressure to perform, having posted eight and a duck in his first two competitive outings for the national team, in limited-overs matches in Kenya in July.

He responded to his unexpected call-up in style, however, smashing 76 in just 60 balls against an Afghan attack which is much-feared at this level.

In playing with such freedom - he hit three fours and a six in the 16th over of the match, and was out in the 18th when the team's total was just 90 - he delivered just what Kabir Khan, the coach, had asked of him.

"I always accept a challenge," the left-handed opening batsman said. "I know from playing them before [he made a century in a friendly game against Afghanistan last year] the sort of channels they bowl, and I used the same strategy as before.

"I never think, 'This is the four-day format, this is one-day, this is T20'. I just play my natural shots, and my coach [Kabir] has helped me by telling me every day to use my talent.

"He has given me a chance in the four-day game, and I really enjoyed it. This is a big opportunity for me."

The emergence of a bright new player in the national team seemed appropriate on a day when play was accompanied by the constant drone of drilling at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

The country's oldest international ground is in the midst of a facelift, ahead of the return of Test cricket when Pakistan play Sri Lanka here at the start of next month.

The small matter of an Intercontinental Cup match in the middle was not going to deter the workers from their jobs.

The ground is starting to look revived. New blue plastic seats have been bought to replace the dog-eared old ones in the main stand.

The tented Majlis-style roof on the stands on the Sharjah Club side of the ground have been repaired.

Until recently, the fibre roof had gaping hole in it, but it has been replaced, and with dark green, rather than white, material.

By the end of the day, the two teams found they had glass partitions separating their viewing areas, which were not there at the start of play.

While the players in the middle were attempting to concentrate on the action, those left in the dressing rooms were more concerned with trying to find somewhere quiet to sit.

As the maintenance staff busied themselves drilling, the players were constantly switching seats.

Those left nearest the workmen spent much of their time sat with their fingers in their ears.

The rejuvenation of Sharjah felt like a symbol for the UAE team, too. The national team has needed sprucing up of late, having overly relied on a clutch of senior players for years now.

Kabir, the coach, has spoken of the need to develop reserves of talent, and has invested much faith in Palekar. And in the absence of Saqib, he was delighted at how the Mumbai-born batsman performed.

"It shows we have good depth in our batting," Kabir said. "Although we respect our senior players, who have carried the burden for the past seven or eight years, we want lots of players who can contribute so we are not weak without them.

"This shows that we can cope under pressure, even though we are missing one of our very best batsmen, against the defending champions and a side who have a very good fast-bowling unit."

Aftab Habib, the caretaker coach of Afghanistan, said his side were pleased to pick up eight wickets on a typically docile first-day wicket in the heat of Sharjah.

"It was tough to bowl on and it was a matter of being patient," Habib, the former England Test player, said. "We fought back well at the end and I was pleased we had them eight down by the end."

pradley@thenational.ae

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