If you had been forced at the start of the World Cup to bet your house on the outcome of one game, India versus UAE would have been one of the surest prospects. New Zealand v Scotland might have had you wriggling nervously in your seat, while Sri Lanka v Afghanistan would have had you gathering your children and treasured possessions and weeping. If you had picked West Indies to beat Ireland, you’d be homeless now.
From the tenth ball of the match, when Andri Berenger top-edged an unfortunate hook to MS Dhoni, your heart rate wouldn’t have been raised by India v UAE. Whenever you momentarily lost interest in proceedings, another wicket would fall and you would sink a little more comfortably into your sofa. Even the best batting efforts from the UAE line-up were exercises in damage limitation rather than damaging the opposition. Shaiman Anwar, who currently lies fourth on the run-scorers table in the World Cup, put up just over a third of his team’s 102 total at a strike-rate of 71. Only two of his colleagues, vice-captain Khurram Khan and number eleven Manjula Guruge, made double figures. The last-wicket partnership of 31 was the highest in the innings, and spared UAE the embarrassment of failing to reach three figures. Even when Shikhar Dhawan punched a short, wide delivery to a fielder, India never looked like wavering. Kohli and Rohit Sharma eased coolly to the target in a little under 20 overs.
Each individual UAE player will be disappointed with their performance. No-one can be proud of a single-figure score in an ODI when nearly 20 overs go unused. They were defeated by a confident and disciplined bowling attack, and there weren’t really any loose dismissals. Ravi Ashwin was particularly masterful in his use of drift. It wasn’t close, it wasn’t plucky, and it never looked like being an upset. But it was by no means a disaster from a UAE perspective, and the match needs to be placed in the context of the enormous difficulties faced by their players.
UAE are the only semi-professional team at the 2015 World Cup. Khurram Khan spends most of his time working for Emirates, the UAE’s airline, as a flight purser. At 43, the commitment he has shown to fitness and practice is absolutely remarkable. Khan’s is a tale of endurance and perseverance. In his highly recommended chapter on UAE cricket in Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts, Peter Miller describes Khan as the UAE’s Dorian Gray. One keeps a close eye on his ESPNcricinfo profile picture daily for signs of a grimace. His is a story of how a man, past the prime age for most international sportsmen, earned the right to play at cricket’s biggest tournament against the best professionals in the world. It is not, however, a fairytale.
Virat Kohli has one job, and that is playing cricket. When he wakes up, all he has to do that day is train and practise. He doesn’t have to do manual labour or an office job, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about money. Cricket is Kohli’s life, as it is for MS Dhoni, Ravi Ashwin, and the rest of the team. However good the UAE players are at cricket, the sport can only be a part of their life, and not its totality. When you add in the living standards, coaching, opportunities to gain playing experience in domestic cricket, and the mental and physical ease brought about by being financially well-off, it is no surprise that there is a wide gulf between India and the UAE.
Experience of playing on a big stage is an enormous factor. Khurram Khan is the most capped ODI player in UAE history, with 13. The least experienced player in the Indian XI was Mohit Sharma, who already has 14 caps to his name. Umesh Yadav, the second least-capped Indian player in the match (with 43), has played almost twice as many ODIs as the UAE have ever played in their history. The UAE are used to playing qualifier tournaments at the ICC Academy and small grounds with only a handful of spectators, and they have seldom faced high-quality opposition in a high-pressure environment. Over half Khurram Khan’s ODI matches have been played against fellow associates. Consider Virat Kohli who, at 26, has played over 200 international matches, as well as countless IPL games and other televised fixtures. The UAE’s inexperience showed in their performance, undoubtedly, but they didn’t look like a team that had fewer than half the international caps between them than a single one of the opposition’s players. It was a defeat, but not an embarrassment.
Another factor is the structure of UAE cricket. They are mostly expatriate players from the cricket-loving Indian subcontinent. Very few of them were born in the Emirates, and only Tauqir, the captain, is an Emirati citizen. Due partly to the stringent UAE citizenship rules, many expats in the UAE feel more closely attached to their country of origin than the UAE. If Colombo-born Andri Berenger had had the talent and ability to represent Sri Lanka in international cricket, he probably would have done so – after all, he played Under-19 internationals for the country of his birth. The UAE team is made up of players who couldn’t quite make their dreams come true elsewhere, so it is easy to see why they aren’t up to the level of those other teams, the differences in finances, professionalism, and experience aside.
Playing against India in the World Cup was a huge moment for the UAE, and they will be heartbroken that they didn’t put up more of a fight. After all, few international sports matches are watched by as many people as Indian ODIs, and any time when the world’s eyes are on you, it is embarrassing when you fall short. They showed promise in their games against Ireland and Zimbabwe, but were unable to secure a win. And yet if some talented cricketers in the UAE have been inspired by this tournament, all has not been in vain. If the ICC backs down on its ridiculous decision to cut associates out of future World Cups, then maybe UAE can build a cricketing legacy for itself. They have another opportunity to take on a subcontinent rival, Pakistan, on March 4th. If they can face that prospect and be less daunted by the occasion than they were against India, then this defeat will not have been for nothing.
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