x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Flintoff for UAE? There's a thought

As much as England's dressing room might have a Afrikaans twang at present, they are not as heavily reliant on importing ready-made players as countries from outside the Test elite.

I cannot work out if it is a good thing or a bad thing, or if it is xenophobic to even query it at all. But what happens if Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen score all of England's runs in the Test series which starts next week, and their adopted nation beat their home nation as a consequence? Can we Englishmen celebrate, or should we feel embarrassed? At least this time there will be a couple of foreign umpires to make it feel less like a South African provincial game masquerading as international sport.

When Trott and Pietersen batted together in the second Twenty20 last month, with no neutral officials required, all 15 people on the field were South African. Which was about as cringeworthy as Pietersen's attempts to prove his Englishness early in his international career by all but devouring the three lions on his helmet whenever he scored a century. As much as England's dressing room might have a Afrikaans twang at present, they are not as heavily reliant on importing ready-made players as countries from outside the Test elite.

Consider the case of the UAE. Is it right to claim the sport is prospering here? Superficially, it appears to be in rude health. Even before the International Cricket Council-backed academy at Dubai Sports City comes on stream, or the link-up between the MCC and Abu Dhabi Cricket Club takes root, the game is widely played, and to a high level. The national team are also basking in the glow of perhaps its finest win to date in first-class cricket, after they picked Namibia's pocket in their own backyard in the Intercontinental Shield on Tuesday.

Yet calling it the "national" team is somewhat of a misnomer. Mohammed Tauqir, whose five second-innings wickets were vital to the win, is the only UAE national in a side otherwise made up of highly committed expatriate cricketers. The ICC's rules on the subject are more stringent than many other sports. The majority of the players have to have been resident in the country for at least seven years - by which time most will no doubt have established a strong bond with the place.

In rugby, a player only needs to be a three-year resident before he is eligible for the national team. The Dubai Rugby Sevens celebrated its 40th birthday this week, making it older than the country in which it was being staged. Thanks to expatriates, the game is firmly entrenched here, yet only very recently have Emirati players started to be enticed into the sport. The UAE population, as a whole, is obviously expatriate heavy, but if the national football team are peopled solely by Emiratis, why can cricket not find a greater balance?

The statement from the Asian Cricket Council last week that the UAE should not consider sending a side of Emiratis to the Asian Games next year for fear they might suffer "embarrassing" results sent out wholly the wrong message. Why have the body tasked with overseeing the spread of the game here not been more progressive in taking the game to the Arabic community, rather than just dismissing them when they do make an effort?

The fact the facilities here are the envy of the non-Test playing world, and the fact Andrew Flintoff deems it a suitable place to call home, seems to have become an acceptable substitute for a development programme that targets Emiratis. If Flintoff never regains his fitness to the extent he can play for England again, and he continues to base himself in Dubai, within four years he would actually qualify to play for the UAE. Now there is a thought.

pradley@thenational.ae