Sharjah: Cricket in the UAE is passing through a challenging phase. It has been battling dwindling grounds, rising costs of facilities and the unavailability of top cricketers.

Mazhar Khan, the chief administrator of the Emirates Cricket Board, who is also the secretary of Sharjah Cricket Council and manager of the UAE team, spoke at length on how he has been tackling these problems. He candidly admitted that cricket is still an amateur game but refused to admit that the standard of the game is sinking due to a shortage of grounds.

He pointed out the UAE is placed 17th in the International Cricket Council's (ICC's) World Rankings and is gearing up to qualify for the World Cup after having qualified for the 2010 Asia Cup.

Gulf News: There is a general feeling that the standard of cricket in the UAE is sinking due to a shortage of cricket grounds. Do you think the construction boom has affected the game?

Mazhar Khan: I don't think so. We still have over 50 grounds in the UAE that cater to our domestic cricket.

You mean cricket is regularly played at over 50 grounds.

Yes. In Sharjah and Al Dhaid together we have seven grounds. In Umm Al Quwain there are 10 grounds while Hamriya has three grounds. Ajman Council has eight grounds. Even in Dubai there are two grounds in Seven Seas, one in Zabeel Park, one each in Dubai College, two in Dubal and one in the Green Community. Ras Al Khaimah has two grounds, Fujairah three grounds and Abu Dhabi and Al Ain has six grounds. With top-class facilities coming up in Dubai Sports City including the Dubai Stadium and two ovals, cricketers not only in the UAE but also throughout the Asian region will benefit from these state-of-the-art facilities.

So is the game shaping up well in the UAE?

We are getting ready to participate in the ICC World Cup qualifier in April 2009. In world ranking the UAE is 17th out of the International Cricket Council's 103 member countries. We have already qualified for the Asia Cup 2010 and even our performance in the recent Asia Cup in Lahore was excellent. Our aim is to now qualify for the 2011 World Cup.

Are you confident that you can continue to get the top players available regularly to play for the UAE despite their job commitments?

Cricket is at an amateur stage here and most cricketers work six days a week. It is difficult at times for these cricketers to take leave from their organisations. We do get support from these organisations, but at times they are unable to grant leave for long periods.

You were the manager of the UAE team for the Asia Cup, what did you observe as the major difference between the top teams and the UAE?

We lag behind in physical fitness and fielding. If we can improve in these two areas we can give a good fight to the full member countries.

Are constant work schedules affecting players' physical fitness?

Yes. it is hard for the cricketers to find time for physical training. We have the facilities and also a physical trainer.

Are there enough local tournaments or is it getting too expensive to host events?

The four regional councils of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman conduct over 40 tournaments each year where 1,800 games are played in the domestic season. There are limitations in sponsorship, but then, sponsors are also looking in terms of returns. We do not have television support and smaller tournaments do not attract sponsorship, so it's always a struggle to meet tournament costs.

So what are we lacking when compared with established cricketing nations?

We do have a first-class infrastructure as far as the turf grounds and stadiums are concerned. What we need is more turf ovals and grass grounds so that players get the opportunity to play on turf wickets.

Why is that more Emiratis are not taking up the sport?

The numbers are growing when compared with earlier years. With the advent of T20 (Twenty20), their interest may increase and we may see more and more taking up the game.

We also find that only people from the sub-continent play the game here although there are many other nationalities in the UAE now.

We have quite a few South Africans playing now and some Australians have shown an interest to play once the season starts in October.

What is the criteria followed from the team selection point of view?

The main criteria is merit and of course we do look into the aspect of developing our UAE national cricketers too.