x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

For UAE cricket team, home is where you can hang your cap

Sharjah-born bowler Ahmed Raza happy to reach his goal after 11 years of anguish.

The UAE's Ahmed Raza, born in Sharjah, has waited 11 years to play a World Cup game. Pawan Singh / The National
The UAE's Ahmed Raza, born in Sharjah, has waited 11 years to play a World Cup game. Pawan Singh / The National

There has long been a perception about the UAE’s national cricket team from beyond these shores.

All expatriates, all flying the flag of convenience.

Most only in the team because they could not make it into their own national side, and with little affection for the country they are representing. Such a viewpoint does a major disservice to players who, by the rules of international cricket competition, have to show a significant commitment to the country they represent.

Cricket has some of the strictest eligibility criteria among leading international sports.

A player can only really start to think of playing for an adopted nation after four years of residence, and they have to have played a significant chunk of domestic cricket in that time.

So it is difficult to accuse any player of simply dropping by and demanding a game.

Khurram Khan, who will be leading the UAE in the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, which begins when they face the Netherlands on Monday, has been in the side for more than 11 years. He has been a central figure in the sport here for about 15 years, all while holding down a day job.

Is that not commitment?

Taking a rigid view on nationality is outdated, anyway. Khurram’s regular understudy, Ahmed Raza, for instance, has a Pakistani passport – as 10 players in the UAE squad in Bangladesh do.

Yet he was born in Sharjah, has lived in the UAE all his life, learnt his cricket here and has only played abroad when it has been on tour with either his junior academy or the national team.

The UAE is not his adopted home – it is his only home, and he is proud to admit it.

Playing on the global stage for his country represents the realisation of a lifetime ambition and the culmination of more than a decade of near misses for him in UAE colours.

“I first played for the UAE when I was 14 and now I am 25,” said Raza, who captained UAE age-group sides in his youth. “It has taken me 11 years to get the chance to play a World Cup game, so of course it is very special for me.

“People have become eligible, who maybe wanted to play for Pakistan but couldn’t, so [they] came down here and completed their four years residency and now they are playing. For me, it was an 11-year struggle.

“Missing out on the Under 17 World Cup, on the Under 19 World Cup, this was always lacking from my career.

“Now I’m getting that chance.”

Raza, who is one of four UAE-born players in the squad, is highly regarded in the national set up, which goes to show the country can produce its own players and does not have to rely on ready-made imports.

“Ahmed is a leader who can inspire the team through his hard work, and he is also a thinking cricketer,” said Aaqib Javed, the coach.

In 2004, Raza played for the UAE in an age-group competition which also involved the likes of Mushfiqur Rahim and Angelo Mathews, who have gone on to captain Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, respectively.

His star may not have ascended at quite the rate theirs did, but he is happy to have the chance to compete on the same level again.

“When you start playing cricket and you are from an associate country, it is the main thing you aim for – to reach the top level,” Raza said.

“That is the opportunity we are getting.

“We have all been praying for that day and hopefully we will be able to put up a good show.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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