April is a decisive month for International Cricket Council associate members in the Gulf region.
Qualifying outcomes for both the Asia Cricket Cup and the ODI World Cup are in play. Earlier in the month, the UAE succeeded in reaching the final qualification stage for the 2023 ODI World Cup. In the second qualifying stage for the finals of the Asia Cricket Cup, the men’s teams of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain will compete in the Asia Premier Cup, along with four other Asian teams.
Stakes are high, as only the winning team will join the five full ICC Asian members in the Asia Cup. The naming of the qualifying stages, as if each was a free-standing competition, can lead to confusion.
Nepal is the venue for the Asia Premier Cup, where vociferous home supporters will be striving to drive their team on to greater heights. The 10 teams have been divided into two groups of five, from which the winners and runners-up progress to the semifinals.
Saudi Arabia has been placed in Group A, with Malaysia, Qatar, Nepal and Oman, to be played on April 20, 22, 24 and 26, respectively. These are all challenging and experienced opponents. Group B comprises Hong Kong, Kuwait, Singapore, Bahrain and the UAE.
It is the latter team that will be under the greatest pressure to succeed, having rediscovered its form, just in time. This disappeared dramatically in the latter stages of the League 2 qualifying stage for the 2023 ICC ODI World Cup.
Seven losses in the last 10 games, culminating in a controversial match against Nepal on March 16, condemned the UAE to sixth place out of seven, putting its ICC status in jeopardy. From a distance, the reason for the decline was not apparent. However, it was not a surprise to learn, following that defeat, that the Director of Cricket, Robin Singh, would not be continuing in post.
Singh began his stint in mid-2020 and had initial success, including qualification for the T20 World Cup in Australia and victories over a Test-playing full member, Ireland. Perhaps, as a result, expectations had been heightened too much. Singh was combining his role with that of being a member of the Mumbai Indians coaching team in the Indian Premier League, the start of which has clashed with the UAE’s state of crisis.
This has been especially noticeable in the team’s batting, with an apparent nadir against Papua New Guinea on March 5 when they were dismissed for 97. A week later, worse followed, as Nepal dismissed the UAE for its lowest-ever ODI total, 71.
An interim appointment has been made of Mudassar Nazar, a former Pakistani all-rounder, who played 76 Test and 122 one-day matches for his country. After various coaching and administrative roles, he has most recently been head of the Emirates Cricket Board’s National Academy program, as well as head coach of the UAE’s under-19 team. Hence, he was a familiar figure to the players in their hour of need.
They responded in impressive fashion. Failure to secure a top-three spot in League 2 meant the chances of qualifying for the World Cup rested on a knife edge via a play-off qualifier with five other teams in Namibia between March 26 and April 5. The UAE’s batters returned to form, scoring over 200 in each of the five matches, of which four were won to secure second spot behind the US.
Despite equal points, the US team was placed in top position as they beat the UAE head-to-head. Nevertheless, one-day international status was retained, important because of the continued opportunity to play against teams of high-quality and receipt of ICC funding.
Asif Khan encapsulated the change in batting fortunes, scoring 297 runs from a middle-order batting position. Another Khan, Ali, featured prominently for the US, claiming 16 wickets at an average of 12.37, including seven for 32 to destroy Jersey’s innings. In that match, the tensions which exist in these qualifying tournaments, where the stakes are so high, surfaced in the use of disparaging language/gestures and inappropriate physical contact.
Three players were deemed to have breached the ICC’s code of conduct, one from Jersey, who was fined 15 percent of his match fee, and two from the US, including Khan, who received a demerit point. When added to three previous penalties, it means that he will miss the team’s next two matches, either T20 or ODI. It seems that he fits well into the mold of fiery fast bowlers.
The US squad will be hoping that these two matches do not coincide with the final World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe in June and July. Nine teams out of 10 have been confirmed: West Indies, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, Scotland, Oman, Nepal, US and the UAE.
This is a powerful line-up, which will be supplemented by the 10th team, either South Africa or Ireland, whose team has to win all three matches in a series against Bangladesh in May. There will be some fierce rivalries playing out in this competition between teams that have met each other frequently in the past two years, sometimes not always harmoniously.
It is difficult to imagine that the two teams which progress to the finals in India will not come from the four full members. There will be the hope among the associate members that they can cause an upset along the way so as to illustrate their progress. Experience of playing against stronger teams will lead to enhanced techniques, greater familiarity in dealing with pressure situations, and increased confidence to compete at a higher level.
This will be the situation for the Saudi team as it steps out into the unknown in the febrile atmosphere of Nepal to face Asian competitors of significantly greater experience in one-day cricket. It is another step on a developmental pathway.