x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE squirm in the seat as Afghanistan hold firm

Players can do little as Kenya’s floundering leaves them in hope that Afghanistan have a rare off-day in office.

Ahmed Raza, in his Dubai office, keeps track of the latest score of the Afghanistan-Kenya game. Satish Kumar / The National
Ahmed Raza, in his Dubai office, keeps track of the latest score of the Afghanistan-Kenya game. Satish Kumar / The National

SHARJAH // At least the UAE’s players did not have to trouble themselves with dreaming up an excuse to skive off work. That said, they might now have to start thinking about putting in for some more annual leave in January, mind.

Afghanistan made such quick work of their dire opponents from Kenya that if anyone had wanted to nip along to see the climax midway through the afternoon, they would have found an empty stadium.

On this evidence, there is absolutely no chance of anything other than a cleansweep when the two sides meet again on Friday.

The UAE need Kenya to beat their Asian rivals in the final match of the World Cricket League Championship to help them go directly through to the 2015 World Cup.

There is hope, and then there is vain hope. If the form guide is anything to go by, Kenya’s cricketers have more chance of building a snowman on a length at Sharjah Stadium than they have of registering a win.

What about the pressure weighing down on Afghanistan and them botching it? Not likely, according to Kabir Khan, the Afghanistan coach.

“All those butterflies have been going in our hearts and minds, but we have been in this position for the past 12 months now,” Kabir said.

“We have had to win each and every game we have played, so every game was as important as Friday’s game or today’s game.

“It is pressure, but the good thing is these boys have been through this pressure for the past 12 months so they are used to it and are enjoying pressure.”

If the Afghans do proceed with the seemingly inevitable tomorrow, it is far from the end of the road for the UAE.

The six sides who fail to secure automatic qualification from this two-year long league will head to New Zealand in January for a repechage tournament to decide the final two places for the 2015 showpiece.

With their goal within smelling distance now, though, it would be a tough pill to swallow if the UAE players do have to go through the whole process again.

Ahmed Raza, for one, was growing increasingly infuriated every time his online desktop scoreboard updated this morning. The UAE vice-captain was working a double shift at his job in banking in Bur Dubai, but his mind was understandably wandering.

Why did Kenya bat first? Did they not know a 9.30am start gives the bowlers their best window of opportunity on Sharjah pitches?

If only they had asked, the UAE’s players would have gladly given them some pointers.

To date, Afghanistan have yet to beat the UAE in a 50-over match. It is an odd quirk given that they have swept everyone else, apart from Ireland, at this level over the past 10 years, and have been zoning in on the tier above for some time, too.

The national team beat the Afghans twice during this competition, in matches which were nominally away for the UAE matches, despite the fact they were played in Sharjah.

And yet, oddly, if Afghanistan do advance at the UAE’s expense on Friday, it will be the popular vote in these parts.

There were a sizeable contingent of Afghans in the stands, all carrying the ubiquitous tricolours.

Despite an early start – 9am to cater for an extended break for Friday prayers between sessions – the stands are likely to be heaving, according to Hamid Hassan.

“Everybody knows how important Friday’s match is,” said the fast-bowler, who took career-best one-day international figures of four for 19.

“For the past 10 years we have been playing cricket and we are thirsting to qualify for the 2015 World Cup.

“There were millions of people watching this game back at home in Afghanistan.

“They were sending us their prayers, they were sending us messages by Facebook, by Twitter, by email.

“They are also very hungry to qualify for the World Cup, they want to see their players at the World Cup.”

Nawroz Mangal, the first captain of the Afghan cricket team who only recently passed on that mantle to Mohammed Nabi, was the star with the bat.

After the Afghans had routed Kenya for just 89, Mangal settled the eight-wicket win in a rush, hitting the winning runs with a six to reach 52 not out.

Kabir said the manner of victory was by design. The Afghans know they have their prey where they want them, and they are not going to ease up till the job is done.

“We wanted to dominate them, we didn’t want them to have a sniff of a win,” the coach said.

“We didn’t want them to think if they make 150 in the next game it will be good enough. We did that well.”