UAE could take leaf out of Oman cricket
The UAE may be absent from their own party over the next two weeks but the World Twenty20 Qualifier will still have some Gulf representation.
And not just in name, either. As a sign of the progress Oman has made in bringing nationals to the game, there are two indigenous Arabs in their squad for this competition, one of whom is a member of the royal family.
The UAE's neighbours have enjoyed marked success in integrating nationals in a sport which always had been perceived as one for expatriates. Of the 800 or so people who play senior cricket there, approximately 100 are Omani nationals.
It is a regulation of their domestic cricket that each A Division side must field at least two Omanis in their starting XI. Separate to that, there are now five fully Omani sides playing domestic cricket.
Those sort of numbers are in stark contrast to cricket across the border. When the UAE played Scotland in Sharjah last week, their side was made up exclusively of expatriates, after Mohammed Tauqir, the lone Emirati contender, failed to make the final XI.
It is nothing new. Interest in cricket among UAE nationals, which has only ever been sporadic at best, has been dwindling of late.
Promisingly, there are three Emiratis in the national under 16 squad, but the amount who are playing senior cricket to any significant level can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
According to Iqbal Sikander, the former Pakistan leg-spinner who is Oman's coach for this qualifier, the UAE have been victims of their own success.
The national team have been one of Asia's leading non-Test nations for years. However, they have been overly reliant on expatriates to reach that standing.
Once that well runs dry, the UAE could be overtaken by their fast-developing rivals unless they invest in indigenous talent, according to Sikander.
"The problem in the UAE is the majority of players playing over here are expats," said Sikander, whose full-time job involves overseeing Gulf cricket in his role as the Asian Cricket Council's development officer for the region.
"They have done so well over the years, they do not want to change the programme that they have. They stick to what they do, and they are quite happy at the moment.
"If UAE can introduce the same formula as Oman, where you have to have a set amount of Emiratis playing in B or C Division cricket, it could prove successful."
Despite the upsurge in interest in the game back at home, it would be wrong to suggest Qais Khalid Al Said, an all-rounder who is the team's vice-captain, is a product of the system. His roots in the game spread far and wide. The cricketing royal first learnt the game as a nine year old growing up in the UK. He later shared the new ball in the same school team as Simon Jones, the Ashes-winning England fast bowler, before moving to the United States on a football scholarship.
He only returned to the game 13 years later, when he returned to Muscat. "I went back to Oman, and sure enough I worked my way back up again to make the team," said the left-arm seam bowler, who also serves as the vice-chairman of Oman Cricket.
Football has already got a pretty handy figurehead in Oman in the form of Ali Al Habsi, the first Gulf Arab to play English Premier League football.
If cricket needs the same, then perhaps Al Said, 32, fits the bill. "It is getting exposure that way," he says of the profile his heritage grants him, "but it is not necessarily easy to get funds. This time around, I sponsored the team."
While Afghanistan and Nepal are likely to be the best backed sides in this competition, the Gulf representatives can count on some backing, too.
Al Said's mother, who he is thankful to for driving him all around the UK when he played junior county cricket in his youth, is making the trip to Dubai next week.
"There is nothing worse than your mum giving you grief when you don't perform," he said.
The Oman side's first goal for this competition is to advance beyond the pool stage.
It might seem like a big ask, given they are appearing at this level for the first time, but Sikander insists being outsiders is not such a bad thing, while Al Said says they are "not completely off the pace".
"This tournament gives us an outside advantage because of familiarity with the wickets, climate and local support," Hemal Mehta, the side's India-born captain, said.
"We are eyeing for a spot in the top six at stage one. If we can perform consistently then this target can be achieved.
"It is an honour and a privilege to be the only team from the Middle East."
Updated: March 13, 2012 04:00 AM