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UAE players Ali Nasser, Aryan Lakra and Ayaan Afzal Khan celebrate during the Twenty20 International against Afghanistan. Image Credit: Source: ECB

Dubai: Experience and exposure are invaluable components in international cricket and it is that high-quality exposure that the UAE players had lacked in the past. But the advent of the DP World ILT20 league has changed the landscape of UAE cricket, bringing more success to the young and the experienced players alike.

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In the past, the difference between Associate Nation players and Test-nation players was significant. The advent of the franchise Twenty20 leagues have reduced that gap, especially in the shortest format. So is the case with the UAE players.

What made the difference?

It’s all due to the UAE’s ILT20 league. The league playing conditions stipulate that each team should pick four UAE players and a minimum of two should play in the eleven. So 24 UAE players had constant training with some of the big names in the business, which has helped them learn the nuances of the game.

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Former Australian all-rounder Tom Moody with the new Desert Vipers' training kit. Image Credit: Supplied

Tentative start

After a tentative start in the ILT20 season 1, the UAE players have shed the initial inhibitions and started feeling it is where they belong.

“I just think that they look more comfortable in the environment they’re in. When you see them around training, they look like they very much know that they belong in that elite environment. Last year you could sense the young players felt that there was a considerable step up for them physically, technically and skill wise,” Tom Moody, former Australian all-rounder and the Cricket Director of Desert Vipers, replied to a query from Gulf News during the jersey launch earlier this week.

“Now there’s a shorter gap and as this tournament unfolds, we’ll see that gap come even more closer and that’s only going to benefit the UAE. It’s also going to benefit the tournament itself because the standard of the tournament is going to grow in a considerable way when you have such quality UAE players.”

Desert Vipers lost in the final of Season 1 to Gulf Giants and the 58-year-old Australian is not willing to look far ahead in the six-team league. The 2023 finalists, however, have been strengthened by the arrival of Pakistan quartet of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shadab Khan, Azam Khan and Mohammed Amir.

“Every franchise competing in a tournament like this will be wanting to win it and we’re no different. We were one step short of that last year and, it may sound clichéd, but really our target is the very first game and to understand the brand of cricket that we presented in that game. We want to play good cricket from game one,” he added.

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Former Pakistan all-rounder and Desert Vipers' bowling coach Azhar Mahmood correcting the seam position of Ali Naseer. Image Credit: Supplied

Young UAE all-rounders Aayan Afzal Khan, Ali Naseer and Sanchit Sharma were able to make their mark and seamlessly move up the grade on the international arena after their maiden stint in the professional Twenty20 league last year.

Considerable growth

“I’ve noticed a considerable growth in the exposure of the UAE players that we have within our franchise. Someone like Ali Naseer, for instance, has come along leaps and bounds over the last 12 months and how important he is now to the national set-up as an all-rounder and it’s great that his journey started with us at the beginning of this. We’re just starting to see the benefits of this league when the UAE players are getting to rub shoulders against some of the world’s best players, some of the world’s best coaches in the franchise set-ups.”

Aayan Khan, who played a big part in Gulf Giants winning the title last season, has set the bar higher this year and feels no pressure as defending champions.

“I’ve been playing the franchise leagues for almost two years now and those years were a bit harder. Now people know my name and I have the experience at the international level. So I want to live up to their expectations,” said the UAE Under-19 skipper, who successfully guided the hosts to the Asia Cup final in a historic feat.

“My goal this year is obviously to help my team win the title again and my individual target is to win the UAE player of the Tournament Award.”

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Gulf Giants coach Andy Flower presenting the new jersey to Sanchit Sharma. Image Credit: Supplied

While Aayan’s fortunes soared in the last 12 months, another young UAE all-rounder Sanchit Sharma had to go through a roller-coaster year after an injury curtailed his participation for UAE.

“I would say 150 per cent fit. It was a rollercoaster year for me, but I am really excited with the challenges coming in this season coupled with the challenges that I had previously,” said the UAE pacer. “I gained a lot of experience from the ILT20 and international cricket as well. Now I am working on improving my batting and has also worked on bowling at the top and towards the death. My aim is to keep doing well for Gulf Giants and for UAE.”

This edition of the ILT20 sees two changes to the format. The league has introduced Super Sub, something similar to the Impact Player rule introduced in last year’s Indian Premier League, and Wild Cards. This move will enhance the opportunities of the UAE players.

A dream come true

The Vipers have added UAE Under-19 player, Tanish Suri, who recently made his debut with the senior squad against Afghanistan. Suri has been included in the squad as a backup to the Pakistan wicketkeeper, who could be away on national duty.

“I am really excited, it is a dream come true. I cannot wait to link up with the squad and work alongside the great players we have. I know I have a lot of learning to do but alongside those players and with the coaching staff, it will be great to be involved.”

Moody said: “Tanish will add to our wicketkeeping depth while we have some squad movement throughout the tournament. Opting for an additional UAE player is something we are proud of as a franchise, it shows our commitment in helping to develop the game here in the UAE. We believe having five domestic players in our squad is a win-win for everyone.”

On the other hand, veteran Rohan Mustafa is hoping to regain his spot in the UAE team with a strong showing in the ILT20 this season.

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UAE Under-19 player Tanish Suri has been inducted into the Desert Vipers' squad. Image Credit: Supplied

“It was very good season with Desert Viper last year, I hope to do much better than last year as I want to make a comeback into the UAE team,” said the former UAE skipper.

Last year saw a number of youngsters being introduced to the UAE senior squad and Mustafa feels these players need to be completely focused on their game and avoid all distractions. He says their confidence will grow very high after playing against quality opposition in the ILT20.

“You face quality spinners and fast bowlers and bowl to some of the best batters in the world during the league. Then when play Associate Cricket, you will feel very comfortable and get a lot of confidence. This is a big opportunity for all the youngsters and even to the seniors.”

Winners' prize money

The ILT20 Season 2 winners will walk away with $700,000 and the glittering tournament trophy on February 17 at the Dubai International Stadium. The most-awaited league begins on Friday with an opening clash between the defending champions Gulf Giants and Sharjah Warriors at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

The 34-match tournament’s losing finalists will be richer by $300,000. The individual award winners will walk away with a unique-coloured belt and $15,000.

The best batter will be awarded the Green Belt, the best bowler will get White Belt and most valuable player will get Red Belt.

The Best UAE Player of the Tournament will be awarded Blue Belt, which was collected by UAE captain Muhammad Waseem last season.

The player of the match award winners for each of the 34 games will be handed out $1500.

DP World ILT20 Season 2 prize money:

Winners: $700,000

Runners-up: $300, 000

Individual awards list:

Best Batter of the Tournament (Green Belt winner): $15,000

Best Bowler of the Tournament (White Belt winner): $15,000

Best UAE Player of the Tournament (Blue Belt winner): $15,000

Most Valuable Player of the Tournament (Red Belt winner): $15,000

Player of the Match (all 34 matches): $1,500