x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

ODI status in the bag, time now for the UAE to go pro

Imagine what a team of full-time cricketers can achieve for the UAE once they are paid to excel on the field, writes Paul Radley.

Every UAE cricketer, without exception, has overachieved despite having day jobs. Chris Young / The National
Every UAE cricketer, without exception, has overachieved despite having day jobs. Chris Young / The National

Forget, for a moment, Thursday’s match against Namibia. Forget the fact a win will guarantee the UAE a trip to a World Cup for the first time since 1996.

Meaning the chance to share the stage with all of cricket’s most gilded high-rollers. The chance to face a Dale Steyn bouncer, catch an MS Dhoni helicopter shot, read a Saeed Ajmal doosra, or sledge David Warner.

That is all splendid, of course. Those are the sort of reasons people take up the game in the first place. The UAE’s players are a game away from fulfilling the childhood dreams of every cricketer.

But the outcome of the Namibia game actually pales in significance against Tuesday’s Super Six win over Kenya.

The 13-run success earned full one-day international status to the UAE for the next four years. The effects of that for the sport here should be seismic.

Full ODI status opens doors (or, at least it should until the Position Paper is ratified).

By rights, it should mean more opportunities to play against the Test nations. For example, Afghanistan were accepted in to next month’s Asia Cup – a tournament previously contested by India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan – on account of the fact they now hold that status.

Presumably the invitation will now be extended to the UAE on the same grounds in future? (Do not hold your breath on that count, though, Afghanistan hold far greater box office appeal for broadcasters than the UAE.)

More practically, it should significantly improve the UAE’s revenue earning potential, via International Cricket Council funding as well as corporate sector investment.

For the first time, having paid, full-time cricketers could now be a realistic possibility.

“We have become an ODI nation so there is no more amateur cricket here,” Aaqib Javed, the coach, said on Tuesday.

He is hoping there will be as many as 20 contracted players here in the near future. “If that becomes the case then everything improves,” he said. “I think once we offer them contracts they will be more into the game.”

On Tuesday, victory was secured thanks to a guy who loads cargo at Dubai International Airport for a living. In four years’ time, maybe it will be down to someone who is paid to play cricket professionally.

The essential question it throws up is, can professionalism work here? There are so many factors unique to the UAE’s situation, not least the country’s employment laws, which mean the models which have worked in Ireland, or Afghanistan, or Scotland – even Nepal – could not be simply transposed here.

The average age of the UAE squad in New Zealand is touching 30. By that age, players in nations that are able to support a professional structure are looking for their next employment option, the one which will pay the bills when they have hung up their spikes. So how can any of the UAE’s current crop realistically see cricket as a viable employment option?

“It is too early to decide,” said Amjad Javed, the 33-year-old all-rounder whose innings of 63 was decisive in the win over Kenya.

“We have to play the next game first, try to qualify for the World Cup, then see how things change and what comes our way.

“To play cricket professionally would be good. The standard of cricket in Dubai is very good, and to get the chance to do that on a professional level is definitely something I would like to do.”

But it would be unprofitable for a 42-year-old veteran like Khurram Khan, who already holds a day job as a flight purser, to quit just to pursue cricket for a few more years. The cricket board could easily look at Khurram, anyway, and think there is no need to pay players.

If someone can produce results like he has done over the past decade, while Emirates Airline can pay his wages, then why should anyone need to be full-time? It saves a few dirhams which could be invested elsewhere – in development, say.

But there is only one Khurram Khan. The man is a marvel. No one else could do what he does, all while holding down a job which sees him travel across most of the world’s time zones on a weekly basis, then arrive at the ground looking as fresh as a meadow full of daisies, score a 50, and take three wickets.

Where paid contracts could work would be the next generation. The UAE are already planning for two World Cups, even before Thursday’s game. Obviously, it is the players in the Under 19 side who should represent the future.

But how many of the UAE side who represent the country in the Under 19 World Cup next month will graduate to the full team?

Barely any, if history is a guide. Not because of a lack of talent, but because each will head off abroad to study or work. Cricket, in its current guise, has not been enough to keep them here.

But with the promise of contracts? That would surely entice them back, or persuade them to stay in the first instance, and pursue the life of a professional sportsman.

It must be an appealing thought, plus part of the terms of their employment should be an obligation to give back in a coaching capacity. Having full-time players who are also part-time cricket development officers would be a major boon for the sport here.

“I think it is a big, big thing for the country,” said Khurram, the UAE captain.

“It feels like all the hard work we have been doing for so many years has been paid off.

“We are so happy for the country and for the youngsters who are coming to play now. They have the grounds where they can come and play and prove that the UAE can play cricket as well.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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