Kolkata: The expectations around the UAE cricket team, now under the able guidance of former Indian allrounder and veteran coach Robin Singh, seem to be on an upward curve as they start their journey for a qualifying spot in the 2023 ICC World Cup in India. It’s almost after the gap of a year, courtesy the COVID-19 pandemic, that they return to international fixtures with the first in a series of four One-day Internationals against Ireland scheduled in Abu Dhabi on Friday (January 8).
An Associate Member nation which has played in two 50-over World Cups at a gap of two decades (1996 and 2015), the UAE are now looking to make the cut for the next showpiece but Singh also has the bigger picture in mind for them. The grey shirts were perceived as forces at par with Afghanistan and Ireland, especially in the shorter format, even five years back till these two smaller countries managed to take the big leap forward and enter the fold of the Test playing nations.
‘‘Yes, the UAE have fallen off a bit due to a number of reasons and our plan is to bridge the gap now,’’ said Singh, who is a perfect example of being there, done that as a coach. The 56-year-old was appointed as the Director of Cricket of Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) and Head Coach of the national team in February last year and had been midway with his first assignment with the team to Oman before the pandemic struck.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview on zoom, Singh said the time was ripe for them to take the next leap now. ‘‘We have to put a plan together to achieve this and it will not happen overnight. We have to play a lot more cricket, preferably against higher-ranked opposition in longer formats. The other agenda will be to identify a lot of youngsters from Under-19 level and create a bigger pool of players. In the past, we have had a lot of cricketers who were mostly from Pakistan but they have either aged or left,’’ he said in a pragmatic manner.
Looking ahead at their goal of sealing a berth in the 2023 World Cup as a qualifier, the celebrated coach said that they have made a few conscious changes in the preparation for the challenges ahead. ‘‘We were fortunate to have the facilities to start practice and are playing a lot more 50-over practice matches, which was not the case in the past. The idea behind it is to get them to play as much longer version of the game as possible as they hardly played the two or three-day formats. Ireland are a Test playing nation, so it’s a good way to start our journey against them,’’ he said.
As someone who stood out with his razor sharp fielding on the outfield in the Nineties, the former Indian fielding coach made it clear that the fitness levels and fielding will be a priority area for him - much like one of his predecessors Aquib Javed - who was the guiding force behind taking the UAE to the 2015 World Cup. Asked if he was happy with the fitness level of the players as they were coming out of a prolonged down-time due to the pandemic, Singh said: ‘‘Most of them have ramped up their fitness, I have also identified as to what they need to do in going forward with our fitness trainer. It’s often a little difficult as a lot of guys stay far away and couldn’t be regular at practice due to COVID.’’
ECB, in an effort to compensate for the lack of a proper domestic season last year, had organised a D-10 and then a D-20 tournament in December - which offered the UAE team management something to play with in selecting a pool of players. According to Singh, they now have a mix of about 24-25 players, many of whom are now on a contractual basis and they would be fielded on a rotational basis.
One of the major drawbacks for the UAE cricket has been that being an expat-driven population, the talent-drain proves a hurdle in terms of holding on to the players. There have been a series of such cases where promising young talents left the UAE for higher education or relocation to India, and Singh is quite aware of it.
‘‘Yes, it’s a major problem as we need to hold on to our players. We are trying to interact with some of the youngsters so that they can study in the universities here with scholarships. We are trying to make them understand that if you have the apetite to make it big as a cricketer, we can give you the opportunity to so here. You can’t go and simply do it in a country like India where you will to qualify to even play club cricket,’’ he explained.
‘‘People need to understand that there is a pathway to making it big even in the UAE. If you are from countries like Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, you can do well here and play in franchise leagues around the world. Ultimately, if you want to play in the big stage like the World Cup or ICC events, then that should be the goal. There is a methodology to do that,’’ he said.
A widely travelled coach, the UAE had turned out to be like his second home for the last three to four years as he ran his own academy there, apart from coaching T10 franchise teams. ‘‘See, you have to be hands-on with what you do. I have coached in the US, Hong Kong and then here...if you want to be successful, you have to know the mindset of the players. You can’t be in and out of a country as you have to have a system in place.
‘‘Talking about the UAE in particular, it’s an easy place where everything is possible. You have a lot of parents here who give a lot of support. Sometimes, they can be overbearing but the support is also welcome. The team has to be consistently successful to win their support,’’ he added.