Dubai: It’s going to be a red-letter day for UAE cricket. The Associate Nation has punched above their weight in both the senior ranks and in the Under-19 level in the last couple of years and in the current Asia Cup Under-19, the hosts are euphoric after defeating Test-playing nations Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Their shock win against Group A toppers Pakistan, who remained unbeaten in the league stage, has given them a place in the final of the continental championship for the first time in the history of UAE cricket. The hosts will meet Bangladesh for the title at the Dubai International Stadium on Sunday and one man who is carrying the UAE’s fortunes on his shoulders is skipper Aayan Afzal Khan.
The all-rounder made his UAE senior team debut as an 18-year-old against Bangladesh in Dubai last year and he has made such huge transformation to his game. His transition between the senior and junior teams has been smooth and has managed to show the way to the aspiring talents with his consistent performance, bringing his experience to the fore.
“I look at my individual records. All my runs, wickets and my awards don’t make me happy unless the team wins. I am happy that the UAE have beaten such a strong team like Pakistan and booked the place in the final for the first time. I am over the moon,” euphoric Aayan told Gulf News after winning his third successive Player of the Match award. “I had faith in me and after being part of the UAE senior team for almost a year and half, it helped me a lot to play at this level.” Aayan was also part of the triumphant Gulf Giants in the DP World ILT20 Season 1.
Faster, the better
In a low-scoring game, UAE held their nerves to pull off a stunning 11-run win over the Green Shirts in the semi-finals. Aayan’s 55 helped the team a total to defend and the bowlers came to the party to complete the job in hand. They were also assisted by Pakistan batters, who under pressure, erred in judging the runs and the resultant three run outs brought the UAE back into the game.
When wickets were falling at the other end, Aayan managed to maintain his composure to keep the scoreboard ticking. “Everyone knows that if I stay on the wicket, the runs would come. I am familiar with these kind of wickets, which is suited to my game. So I wanted to playout the overs and score as many runs as I can. The wicket was spinning a bit, but still the ball was coming on nicely to the bat. The fast bowlers didn’t get any assistance and the stronger the pace, the easier it was to play on this wicket,” he elaborated on his rescue act.
Put in to bat, the UAE found the going difficult against a sustained bowling from Pakistan and lost wickets at regular intervals. Opener Aryansh Sharma scored a battling 46 when wickets were falling at the other end. Down five wickets, Aayan and Ethan D’Souza steadied the innings with a 54-run partnership to take the team past the 150-run mark. Pakistan pacer Ubaid Shah was the main bowler with four wickets.
The skipper then followed it up with a miserly spell with his left-arm spinners against the famed Pakistan batting and was well assisted by pacer Obaid Rehman and Hardik Pai, who claimed two wickets. However, pacer Ayman Ahamed saved his best for the last claiming two crucial wickets to seal the win, while off-spinner Dhruv Parashar claimed a crucial wicket of Amir Hassan, who was threatening to take the match away with a 44-run eighth wicket partnership with Ali Asfand.
“I got a lot of help from the coaches and they told me whatever you feel is right, you do it. These kind of words make me feel good and gave the freedom to make changes without any hesitation.”
Three pillars of UAE
The UAE had won the Plate final during the 2022 World Cup in the West Indies, defeating the hosts in the semi-finals and Ireland in the final. Aayan, Aryansh and Dhruv were part of that winning team and that experience has helped the trio to form the fulcrum of the current unit.
Aayan played a crucial role with a match-winning 93 against the West Indies in 2022, while off-spinner Parashar had claimed four wickets in that semi-finals. The spinner then followed it up with a Player of the Match effort against Ireland in the final.
“UAE have defeated Test-playing nations West Indies, Ireland in 2022 and now defeating such big teams like Sri Lanka and Pakistan and to go through to the final of the Asia Cup has sent out a clear message to the cricketing world. Don’t take UAE lightly. We have so many talented players in the country, who have the capabilities to change a match,” Aayan added.
The UAE have the potential to beat any team on their day is what coach Mudassar Nazar had told Gulf News on the eve of the semi-finals against Pakistan and the former Pakistan opener was spot on in his assessment.
Dreams coming true
“A lot of hard work has gone in to team for the last couple of years, at least. We were trying to stick to the same squad and they are all graduating now and they are over the moon after rubbing shoulders with the best in Asia. Things are looking very rosy for the team and for ECB,” said 67-year-old former Pakistan coach ahead of the semi-finals. “We are playing against the best side, obviously a Test-playing nation. It would be a huge challenge. But on our day, we can beat anybody. I’m just hoping that it will be one of those golden days and we come out trumps.”
With his dreams coming true, the coach must me now hoping for another of those golden days in the final.
The UAE gave Bangladesh a scare by dismissing the Tigers to a low score in their Group B opening clash with Parashar claiming six wickets in that game. But the batting failed to take off and none of the batters could convert their starts into a big score to lose by 61 runs. Both teams are coming off stunning wins, Bangladesh defeating world champions India in the other semi-finals. Hence, it is going to be an interesting clash between two new emerging powerhouses of Asia. To boost the home team support, the Emirates Cricket Board has allowed a free entry for public for the final, giving general access from Gate C16. The match starts at 9.30am.