Of all the unlikely stories that populate Associate cricket, UAE getting to the World Cup could be the unlikeliest
Sachin Tendulkar, Geoff Boycott, Sanath Jayasuriya, then a broad stretch of daylight, and then Khurram Khan.
They are, in ascending order, the oldest players to have made one-day international centuries. That list is headed by a player who, three days before setting the world record as the most elderly, was on a 16-hour flight back to Dubai from the United States. Which is not unusual; international cricketers have crazy travel schedules. Except, Khurram took the flight as part of his full-time job.
It is standard fare for the UAE's leading cricketer and, until January, their captain. As a flight purser for Emirates, the airline, Khurram regularly misses net practice because he is on the other side of the globe. He was 43 years and 162 days old when he made 132 not out against Afghanistan in the second of a four-match series in November. And by rights, he should have been pretty tired.
"I was talking to the umpires about the fact I had been in San Francisco," Khurram, who broke Jayasuriya's record by nearly four years, said after what was his first ODI ton. "I reached home at 8pm, and luckily the game the following day was in the afternoon, so at least I got ten hours sleep.
"Then I played the game and was not able to catch up on any sleep at all. I was worried because I have to leave where I live in Sharjah at 6am to avoid the traffic and get here [to Dubai] for work at 8.30am. But somehow it has been working for me. I am kind of happy."
So he should be. He averaged 270 in the three games he played in the series against Afghanistan. And his side won 3-1, which is not bad for a team of part-time cricketers getting ready to take on the world in Australia and New Zealand.
Walkie-talkie tech Fayyaz Ahmed (right) gets a hug from Amjad Ali in a World Cup Qualifier game against Netherlands in 2009
© Getty Images
Walkie-talkie tech Fayyaz Ahmed (right) gets a hug from Amjad Ali in a World Cup Qualifier game against Netherlands in 2009 © Getty Images
UAE will be returning to the World Cup for the first time in 19 years when they start their campaign in Nelson against Zimbabwe. Whether their presence will register in the wider sporting consciousness at home is debatable. Cricket has a substantial following in the UAE, almost entirely because of the large subcontinental work force that accounts for well over half of the population. But most Emiratis and other Arab nationals are entirely in thrall to football.
The country's footballers are idolised, and lavishly remunerated for any success. When the national team won the 2013 Gulf Cup - a small regional tournament driven by local bragging rights rather than general footballing excellence - the rulers reportedly granted them a reward of Dh137 million (about US$37 million).
Ali Kasheif, the goalkeeper-captain, drives a white Rolls Royce with a personalised registration plate (K55, if you're wondering). Compare that to Fayyaz Ahmed, who is one of the country's leading cricket allrounders. A walkie-talkie technician by day, he could only recently afford a car. Until then he used public buses for the two-hour trip from Al Ain to Sharjah for national team practice.
UAE will be the only fully amateur side at the World Cup. Not only do they not have central contracts, most of them cannot afford to even devote entire days to cricket as other Associate cricketers can. Not all of them work the hours Khurram does, of course, but it is worth remembering the national team is almost entirely made up of players from the subcontinent, many of whom were brought to the UAE on the basis of their playing ability alone, by cricket-mad employers looking to strengthen their staff teams. It has more than a whiff of how domestic cricket was organised in Pakistan in the 1970s.
Ahmed Raza didn't make the World Cup squad but plans to head down under to support the side regardless
Ahmed Raza didn't make the World Cup squad but plans to head down under to support the side regardless © ICC
The wicketkeeper Swapnil Patil, for example, who works as a secretary, probably does not need to ask permission to leave his desk in order to play for the work side. The same goes for Nasir Aziz, who is nominally a sales rep, but as the country's leading offspinner, spends more time bowling than pitching sales.
The employers are not to be trifled with, though. Rohan Mustafa is a gifted allrounder. He is the fittest player in the UAE side, one of their best fielders, and generally bowls offspin. He is so skilled he was able to switch to bowling seamers, to good effect, at the World Cup qualifying tournament in New Zealand in January 2013, which sealed UAE's qualification. But he almost missed out on making the final World Cup squad due to a work dispute brought about, predictably, by cricket. Without written permission from his employers, he played in a domestic match for another corporation. It infuriated his boss to the extent that he brought a case against Mustafa for absconding from duty. The claim was upheld in court and he was told to leave the country immediately. He returned to his home, near Abbottabad in Pakistan. After a month there he was issued a reprieve thanks to the intervention of Aaqib Javed, the former Pakistan fast bowler who is now the UAE's head coach, and the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB).
On appeal, his exile was overturned. He returned on a Wednesday, was back training with the national team on Thursday morning, and played a domestic game that evening. And he later got a new employment visa, the prime mechanism through which expats reside in the UAE.
Aaqib's bunch: under Javed, UAE have qualified for a World T20 and a World Cup, and the coach has his eye on Test qualification next
© ICC/Getty Images
Aaqib's bunch: under Javed, UAE have qualified for a World T20 and a World Cup, and the coach has his eye on Test qualification next © ICC/Getty Images
Ahmed Raza is a Sharjah-born left-arm spinner who has lived his whole life in the country. He was taught the game by one of the members of the 1996 World Cup team, the seamer Shahzad Altaf, who runs a popular academy in Dubai. Raza has represented UAE from age group to senior level, often as captain. In November he gained a one-day-international victory as captain, when he stood in for Khurram - who was abroad again with work - in the final match of the Afghanistan series.
Raza, 26, was not especially excited when the team was drawn in a group with Pakistan at the World Cup, no more or less than if it was any other nation, really. He feels a limited affiliation with the country of his parents, the country of which he is officially a citizen (expats in the UAE cannot acquire citizenship or hold an Emirati passport; they remain residents on renewable visas).
Raza eventually didn't get the chance to potentially play Pakistan, gallingly missing the final cut for the World Cup squad. It was galling because the selectors wanted some Emirati representation. The two most senior UAE nationals, Mohammad Tauqir - who was roped out of a two-year retirement to captain in place of Khurram - and Fahad Al Hashmi are both bowlers, so Raza lost out. Despite the rejection, he still feels such an affinity for both UAE and his team-mates that he plans to fly to Australia to support them - work permitting.
Shoehorning cricket into his work schedule is a recurring theme. In October 2013 there was a chance that UAE might sneak into an automatic qualification place for the World Cup through the World Cricket League. Kenya were playing Afghanistan in Sharjah (due to security concerns at home, Afghanistan play their home games in Sharjah); if Kenya won, UAE would have qualified directly instead of having to go through the qualifiers. Raza wanted to be there, supporting the Kenyans, but he couldn't be. He was at his desk doing his job as a personal banking officer, working a double shift to make up for some of the time he had taken for cricket.
Khurram Khan: the airline purser who became a cricket captain
Khurram Khan: the airline purser who became a cricket captain © ICC
"When we beat the professional sides, we are happier," Raza says. "They are only playing cricket. We are working for eight hours and then the next day come to play against Pakistan A [as UAE did in a five-match series in October]." They did not win the series but won the first and last games against a strong side. From any angle it was an impressive result.
"All [of them] are professional cricketers - seven ODI players, a couple of Test cricketers - and we end up beating them. That gives us a lot of confidence."
But they are trying to avoid using work commitments as an excuse. It is what coach Aaqib, a World Cup winner with Pakistan the last time it was played in Australasia in 1992, has been demanding. They are there to compete with professionals, not find mitigating reasons for not doing well. Even if they rarely train in daylight, as they usually only get to nets after work.
"Still, five nights a week is good enough," said Aaqib, who is perennially upbeat. His effect on UAE cricket since he was appointed coach in March 2012 has been immeasurable. His predecessors - including another former Pakistan fast bowler Kabir Khan (twice), Colin Wells, Vasbert Drakes, Chandika Hathurusingha - all came and went too breezily to have any lasting effect.
When Aaqib first arrived he said he felt like he had come home, which, given his part in Pakistan's Sharjah rule in the late '80s and '90s, and his hat-trick against India, is about right. He had been a dutiful part of Pakistan's coaching set-up for a while, but as in his playing career, had been overshadowed by more luminous names.
Coaching UAE was an opportunity for Aaqib to harness his biggest strength: working behind the scenes in shaping young and inexperienced players. He is proud of the progress UAE cricket has made on his watch, qualifying for the World T20 last year and now the World Cup. He also oversaw their U-19 World Cup campaign, where they qualified as hosts. So vitalised does he feel, he is plotting to build towards Test qualification after the 2015 World Cup.
Maybe his finest achievement, though, is that his part-time players can now run as many laps as he does. That was far from the case when he arrived. "They are fit and focused now," said Aaqib, who turned down offers to work in Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2014. "This is the sort of mentality we want. We don't want them to discuss that they are immature or they have these problems or those problems.
"You have to think above everything and concentrate on the World Cup. And think about knocking out a few teams."
Kiwi summer: UAE finished runners-up to Scotland in the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand in 2014
© Getty Images
Kiwi summer: UAE finished runners-up to Scotland in the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand in 2014 © Getty Images
The salient memory of UAE at the World Cup is not glowing. They lost all their matches in 1996, but were led by an Emirati. Sultan Zarawani was the driving force behind that side, and it is him we remember, going in to bat against Allan Donald without a helmet. And then duly getting sconed on the forehead.
Such an act would have been considered foolhardy for established front-line batsmen, let alone for a businessman from the fringes of cricket. Yet Zarawani later suggested he would have been fine had his movement not been impaired by a pair of creaky knees that often needed bed rest for days before matches.
This time round, though they remain amateurs, there will be no such excuses. Thanks to funding from the ICC High Performance programme, the team is a vast improvement on anything that has gone before. Former England players Paul Collingwood, Chris Read and Paul Franks were flown in to provide specialist expertise during an intensive three-week training camp in November. And though it was in Dubai, where most of the squad live anyway, all the players were put up in a hotel, to get them used to living out of suitcases and being an international team.
They have also had use of the high-spec facilities at the ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. The academy is the busiest part of Dubai Sports City, which also has a golf course designed by Ernie Els and a football academy run by former Real Madrid player Michel Salgado. The cricket academy remains independently run, but the UAE team has had free access to it since August by terms of a deal with the ECB. Staff from the academy has been subcontracted to help the team. Mudassar Nazar, the former Pakistan allrounder, has been coaching the batsmen, while a former professional rugby player from New Zealand, Peter Kelly, has been overseeing fitness.
"The skill level was there. They just weren't necessarily athletes," says Kelly, who was employed by Kent before moving to Dubai. "We have really tried to push them towards a professional approach to training. We know they work full-time, and we try to work around that. The progress has been a testament to the effort they have put in, even though they are essentially semi-professionals or amateurs."
Associate cricket is nothing if not a patchwork of unlikely success stories. UAE's is another story altogether, not as celebrated as Afghanistan's or Ireland's but perhaps, in its own way, just as special.
Paul Radley is a sportswriter with the National. @PaulRadley
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.