x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Khan to set UAE cricket on the long road to recovery

Having helped take Afghanistan from cricket's lowest reaches to the biggest stages, Kabir Khan aims to do the same with the UAE.

Kabir Khan, the UAE cricket team’s head coach, talks with players during practice in the Sharjah cricket stadium last month.
Kabir Khan, the UAE cricket team’s head coach, talks with players during practice in the Sharjah cricket stadium last month.

Kabir Khan gets out of the sedan in which he has cadged a lift to training, and makes an apology as he walks across the Sharjah Cricket Stadium car park.

"I'm going to have to make my usual excuse: the traffic," said the UAE cricket coach, after overshooting our scheduled meeting time by a couple of minutes.

We were both late, but rush-hour traffic can do that to you. After all, there is nothing worse than rush hour traffic in Sharjah, is there?

Clearly, there is. A lot worse. As commutes go, a trip from the Corniche to the cricket ground in Sharjah is trivial compared to that which Kabir once undertook regularly in his previous role as coach of Afghanistan's national team.

The mountain pass between his home in Peshawar, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, and the team's training bases across the border in Jalalabad and Kabul is an infamously potted path. Making the trip successfully depends on both what you know and who you know.

"Most of the time I used to travel there without my visa or passport," conceded Kabir, 36, a stocky, bearded former Pakistan seam-bowler.

"Nobody would ask me anything at the border because we speak like them, look like them and I was dressing like them as well.

"The visa process does not make it easy to just go there and come back. If you go there for one day your passport will fail because they don't have a multiple-entry visa system. They have a single-entry visa, and that takes up one page of your passport, so I was cheeky sometimes and went without my passport."

It seems surprising he went undetected so often. As the coach of the national cricket team, Kabir's profile was as great as anyone outside the weary world of politics in Afghanistan.

On his watch, Afghanistan rose from the lowest reaches of international cricket to a place in the world's top 15, gained official one-day international status, and, earlier this year, a place at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.

Within the space of a couple of years, the Afghans went from playing the likes of Jersey and Tanzania, to squaring up against India and South Africa in front of a worldwide television audience.

Their cricketers have been a source of deep national pride in a war-ravaged country, and success earned Kabir kudos, too.

"Because of the love of cricket in that country, everybody knows you," he said.

"These guys are superstars in their country and, as the coach, I was getting a lot of credit.

"They regarded me as a godfather of cricket, someone who had taken the game from a very low level to a high level. I was shown a lot of respect. So I never thought I needed special security."

Kabir and Afghanistan were the perfect fit. The nucleus of their trailblazing national team first learned the game in Kacha Gari, a refugee camp neighbouring Peshawar, the city where Kabir was born and raised.

As such, he had an immediate affinity with his players when he became their first foreign head coach in 2008.

"During the time of the Russian war, Peshawar was full of refugees," he said. "In the surrounding areas there were huge refugee camps. A few of them are still there.

"There were millions of refugees there and we shared a lot of their bad times. I had a lot of Afghan friends and neighbours, a lot of boys who used to play with us and go to school with us.

"It was a very good bond. We learned their languages and they were well-adjusted to our society.

"They are lovely people who have clean hearts. The two things I know now about Afghans are respect and their love for their guests."

Despite the affection tying him to Afghanistan, he opted to resign from his position in August because of what he deemed to be meddling by the new board governing cricket there.

His stock in the profession could not have been higher when he left. Given the glowing recent entry on his CV, the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) were only too happy to take Kabir back in October, filling the role vacated by Colin Wells.

Kabir initially had cut his international coaching teeth on these shores, in 2007. Although he had left prematurely back then, bygones were left in the past and both parties were delighted to be reacquainted.

"We need to [go] to the next level," Dilawar Mani, the ECB chief executive, said upon re-appointing Kabir. "He has already done that with Afghanistan, so I don't see why he should not do that for us."

The players are pleased to have him back, too, not least because his commitment is likely to be a long-term one; he signed a three-year deal.

Cricket's development on these shores has stalled in recent years because of short-termism. For example, Kabir's predecessor, Wells, initially was granted only a four-month deal.

It did nobody any good. The former England player was uncertain what plans to make for his young family, let alone how to map out a future for the game here. Because he impressed, he was subsequently handed a new deal, but that, still, only for a year.

As such, when the job security of a position as director of cricket at the British School al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi was offered to him, it was no surprise that he took it. Now the board have invested in Kabir's long-term vision.

"When I came this time, I came with a full plan," he said. "Last time it was my first job and most of the time I didn't know what to do. As a national coach it was a big thing."

The players with which he is already so familiar do not need any convincing. "He turned around Afghanistan's fortunes to get them from nowhere to finishing in the top six Associate sides [at the last World Cup qualifier]," Naeemuddin Aslam, a key figure in the national team, said.

"It is phenomenal that he had that much of an influence on a country. He worked wonders with them, so to have him over here is great.

"It is not the case that everyone is looking to Kabir Khan to totally change our fortunes, but we can take a lot from what he did with them and hope he can do something similar with us."

The differences between this position and his last are many and varied. It would be easy to suggest his remit should be simpler here: the tribulations faced in everyday life are less grave, for a start.

"I used to go to Kabul and the challenges there are totally different. It is a challenge of life and death sometimes," he said.

"I think it has a positive effect on the boys' mental toughness. If it is a matter of life and death for somebody but he is still coming for practice, it shows his love of the game and that he is not afraid.

"It shows he has a big heart and that he is tough in mind, which makes the perfect player. Here, even the top cricketers are not as tough mentally as we want them to be. That is our task."

Now he is charged with manufacturing that sort of mental strength among players who come to cricket only after their day's work at the bank, or the airport, or the lecture theatre ends.

The challenges the UAE players face may be different to those of their counterparts in Afghanistan, yet the problems still need solving. They remain part-time players, and as such can commit to cricket only when their employers allow it.

Aslam, for example, was briefly redundant earlier this year, and could not travel for the UAE's tour of Kenya, as the terms of his visa meant he would not be let back into the country on his return.

Kabir and the ECB are making moves to rectify such issues. As of this month the players will now be offered financial incentives to attend training.

Also, in addition to the daily expenses they get paid during matches, the board will reimburse the players for any lost earnings their employers take from their salaries while they are playing cricket.

"I personally think this team has more potential than Afghanistan, if they are treated properly," Kabir said.

"In Afghanistan the players are full-time cricketers. They get paid by the cricket board so they can play 24/7.

"Here, they have to go to work and they don't want to make their boss unhappy. There could be visa problems there and still they are playing cricket.

"We want to give them some incentives, and assure them that we are not going to harm them and we are only going to do good for them.

"The UAE should be in the top three [nations outside of cricket's Test elite], standing by Ireland and Afghanistan, if not the top one.

"I've seen all these teams, and the UAE are not a bad team. The difference is they get to a certain stage, then from that point on they don't perform. That is the area we have to concentrate on."

pradley@thenational.ae

Kabir Khan's predecessors

Colin Wells (2009-10)
The Englishman left the post this summer to become the cricket director at British School al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

Vasbert Drakes (2008)
Discussed extending his three-month term, which included the 2008 Asia Cup, but instead returned to his native Barbados.

Kabir Khan (2007-08)
The former Pakistan bowler had a short stint at the helm. He spent much time back on these shores in his role as Afghanistan coach.

Abey Kuruvilla (2007)
Another short-term appointment, Kuruvilla, the mild-mannered former India seamer, was a stop-gap after Chandika Hathurusinghe.

Chandika Hathurusinghe (2006)
The former all-rounder was successful during his stint in the UAE. Currently in the process of emigrating to Australia.

Syed Abid Ali (2002-05)
He has travelled widely with his coaching. He was in the Maldives before the UAE, and now coaches in California.

Naveed Anjum (2000-2002)
After serving in the UAE role, the former all-rounder took up a post at Pakistan’s national academy in Lahore.

Sadiq Mohammed (2000)
The youngest of the famous five Mohammed brothers took up the strain when Mushtaq Mohammed returned to Pakistan

Mushtaq Mohammed (1996-99)
The former Pakistan captain gave up his role with the UAE to coach his homeland at the 1999 World Cup.

Madan Lal (1996)
The UAE’s first professional coach won the 1983 World Cup with India, then led the Emirates in their lone foray to the event.