Farewell, the Emirati giant

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In the lead-up to the UAE’s first match of the current Intercontinental Cup cycle, I was fortunate enough to interview Khurram Khan, their premier batsman.

For various reasons, the publication of that piece was delayed. I had it written, and intended for it to go up today. In the 12 hours since I wrote, however, things have changed. Following a giant defeat to Ireland, by an innings and 26 runs, Khan hung up his boots and announced his international retirement.

In typical Khurram Khan fashion, there were no histrionics and a total absence of drama about his decision. A small press release was followed up with the concise Facebook post, “Thanks all for support, retired today from UAE cricket…”

And with that, the greatest player the United Arab Emirates cricket team has ever produced, was gone.

Two weeks short of his 44th birthday, it was inevitable that the day would come. But for a man who gave his all to his adopted nation, and for so long, it always seemed inconceivable that the UAE could present a team list without the name ‘Khurram Khan’ appearing somewhere in the middle order.

He captained them for a decade, only relinquishing that role to Mohammad Tauqir at the 2015 World Cup, because the board wanted to display “indigenous” leadership and ability on the world stage.

“Not being captain of the team for the CWC ’15 after such a long, hard struggle,” Khan told me, “obviously it hurts. But life goes on, at least I managed to play.”

Tauqir was certainly exceptional at the World Cup, guiding the team with an adeptness that most other skippers at the tournament failed to match. Yet it still seemed a harsh treatment for Khan, who had been captain ever since his appointment to the role back in 2004.

“2004 I was handed over captaincy, I did think it would be easier to qualify but the ACC [Asian Cricket Council] and ICC rules kept changing for us regarding player qualification, and that kept hurting UAE.”

Khan had already been involved in the 2001 ICC Trophy, where the UAE failed to qualify for the 2003 World Cup, and they went on to again miss out on the 2007 and 2011 World Cups too. According to Khan, a lot of this came down to the help (or lack of it) from their neighbours.

“2001, 2004, 2007, 2011 were unsuccessful years for UAE qualifications, I personally think the big reason was Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands had an advantage geographically. The ECB supported them, these countries played county cricket and improved a lot from experience. On the other hand, the UAE did not enjoy such luxuries where, even being close to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and having many expats residing in the country, UAE did not get any support in the shape of ‘A’ or age-group teams travelling to UAE or inviting UAE there.”

That 2001 tournament that he mentioned was Khan’s first involvement with the UAE side, and he hit the ground running – averaging over 60 with the bat, and taking 19 wickets.

Surprisingly, Khan had no prior experience at the top level.

“I had no previous First Class experience before playing for UAE, played good club cricket in Multan, Pakistan, and UAE and that helped me play against associates.”

“Back in July 2001 my first outing with UAE, and it was really successful for me as you mentioned. We had a very good domestic structure and we were playing many 50-over games back then. That gave me a lot of confidence and a place in the team.”

Things have changed dramatically since those days; the team worked their way to the top and performed admirably in the recent World Cup. Had Sean Williams and Kevin O’Brien not played blinders, they could so easily have snared wins against Zimbabwe and Ireland.

The future is going to be a challenge however, with a very ageing squad. Khan and Mohammad Tauqir are both 43, while the man who stole the headlines during the World Cup, Shaiman Anwar, is 36.

“Yes some of us are almost at retiring age, or already have crossed that by a few years including myself, but now I think having ODI status for a couple more years and having National Academy soon there is a lot of interest in UAE and many youngsters are coming up and performing in domestic and will be picked for the national squad.”

But issues still remain, even with those youngsters. A very large proportion of the UAE’s players are expats, especially those from Pakistan, and Khan doesn’t see that changing.

“More cricketers from UAE means lots of school cricket, currently not happening as it should be. So in future I don’t see many locals joining the team as yet.”

But it’s not just within the UAE that things need to change. Much has been spoken, written and debated about the exclusion of associates from the World Cups in future, and it’s something Khan sees as integral to the future of the sport in the associates.

“For qualification of the associate nations, I think there has to be something that these nations can look upon as a target and try to achieve. Not having them in the hunt for the WC is not good at all for associate teams.”

“Not having World Cup as a target, obviously it will dilute the passion for cricket in associates. ICC will have to do something to keep that passion going somehow.”

But the World Cup isn’t the only thing that the ICC needs to work on to help develop the UAE, in Khan’s eyes. Every associate nation talks of the need for exposure against the top-flight nations, and it’s no different for the Emiratis.

“To promote cricket in the associates, more ‘A’ team tours, matches against Full Member teams, competitive cricket and lots of it. That will help UAE to become a top cricketing nation.”

Exposure isn’t the only other issue, however. Part-time cricketers will never be able to keep up with the professionalism of the larger nations, and their abilities to be full-time cricketers.

“Yes, not having full time cricketers is a big challenge most associates have. For that ICC have to put lots of resources in, and I don’t see it happening in the near future. Working and playing professional cricket does not go together, fitness levels cannot be achieved to match the Full Members.”

As for this current Intercontinental Cup, Khan certainly believes the UAE are well in the hunt – albeit with changes in the domestic structure needed to give the side the best chance.

“All the matches last time were very close, with the amount of hard work the team put in during WC preparations I think UAE will be a team to beat. Although structure in domestic cricket needs to change to accommodate longer version of the game, and that is not happening and it’s hurting UAE team.”

From a personal point of view, Khan can look at one particular match as the highlight of his cricketing career. Beating Sanath Jayasuriya’s record for the oldest man to score an ODI century was a remarkable achievement. Especially given that it was against Afghanistan, a side who can compete with anyone in the shorter forms of the game.

Given the UAE’s terrible record up until then – their previous World Cup, before 2015, had been in 1996, the days when Sultan Zarawani captained the side, and was nearly killed by Allan Donald.

While, personally, I’ll always remember Khurram Khan as the man who blitzed all and sundry at the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers, held in New Zealand, the world will remember him for his unbeaten 132.

And rightfully so, given how fondly Khan himself remembers the day.

“It was great to get the first ODI century for UAE ever and mine as well. At least now I have something I can cherish after my retirement.”

So farewell Khurram Khan, good luck with the next stage of your life, and enjoy cherishing not just that one century, but all your great moments in an Emirati shirt. For there were plenty.

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