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Can UAE Cricket Recover from its Corruption Scandal?

Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
©Reuters
 

The two-tiered system in international cricket has often drawn criticism for its exclusivity and the lack of opportunity it creates for smaller nations to develop.

 

For every Bangladesh or Afghanistan that emerges from the Associate Nations to gain Full Member status, there are dozens of international teams that will remain consigned to the lower reaches of the game.

Of course, for many their ambitions do not extend beyond their current status. With all due respect to the cricket boards of Bulgaria, Jersey, and Nigeria, Associate Member cricket is where they will stay.

However, there is a select band of countries at the top end of the Associate pyramid that hold loftier ambitions.

Ireland, the Netherlands, Namibia, Nepal, Scotland, Oman, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Hong Kong, and the UAE all hold ODI status and are among the teams typically competing at the business end of qualifier tournaments to reach the ICC’s World Cups.

Yet, even for these teams – most of which contain top-level professional players – opportunities are still extremely slim compared to those enjoyed by Full Member nations. Unless qualified for a World Cup, meetings against the big teams are sparse, usually resigned to one-off and warm-up matches ahead of more important – and more lucrative – series between Full Member sides.

 

UAE cricket’s promising rise

 

As such, the financial resources in the world of Associate cricket are limited, making it a continued challenge to make any significant progress. Many of the players are part-time and money dedicated to youth development and expanding the game is minimal.

Therefore, any progress made needs to be built upon and any setbacks could have far-reaching and potentially damaging consequences.

That brings us to the UAE. An Associate Member since 1990, the UAE achieved immediate success by winning the 1994 ICC Trophy and qualifying for the 1996 World Cup. However, that team was comprised almost entirely of first-class cricketers from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who were given employment in the UAE and rushed through the process to earn resident status.

After the ICC tightened the rules on national team eligibility, the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) set about building a long-term and more sustainable model. In a nation where an overwhelming majority of its population are foreigners – and with Emiratis so far not embracing cricket – the national team is still full of Indians and Pakistanis. But all are long-term residents of the UAE and are fully invested in the national team.

Recent years saw the UAE emerge as the top Associate team in Asia. They won Division Two of the 2011 World Cricket League, winning every game, before qualifying for the 2014 World Twenty20. The following year, the UAE qualified for the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

Recognising the promising progress being made, the ECB took a major step forward in 2016 by awarding its first central contracts. UAE cricketers were now professional players. That decision was vindicated in March 2018 when the team won its first ODI against a Full Member nation, beating Zimbabwe by three runs in Harare.

 

Scandal engulfs UAE cricket

 

At that stage, the future only looked bright for UAE cricket. But a series of events saw the Emirates cricket setup engulfed in a corruption scandal as a number of senior players were charged with various breaches of the ICC’s anti-corruption code.

Starting in October of last year, captain Mohammed Naveed (once ranked in the top 10 of ODI bowlers), star batsman Shaiman Anwar, and bowler Qadeer Ahmed were charged with 13 counts and were duly handed suspensions.

The crisis deepened earlier this month when opening batsman Ashfaq Ahmed and fast bowler Amir Hayat were handed indefinite suspensions for five anti-corruption breaches. Ashfaq has maintained his innocence, while Hayat has called his punishment “harsh”.

As it stands, five of the UAE’s senior squad members are serving various bans for corruption-related offences. Even after they serve their sentences, it is highly improbable that any will feature for the UAE team again.

“Fixing” in cricket has long been a scourge on the sport. Spot fixing, or the more serious match fixing, have been used by illegal gambling syndicates as ways to bend outcomes in their favour in order to claim huge winnings from bookmakers.

Whereas other ways to manipulate gambling operators such as card counting in blackjack can also generate big returns, that strategy is at best clever and at worst frowned upon. Fixing in sports, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden.

 

UAE cricket forced to rebuild

 

The ICC’s strong clampdown on such activities means players do not even have to be found guilty of contriving to fix matches, only failing to report approaches. The stern punishments are in place to deter players from engaging in fixes and to ensure such approaches are reported immediately.

The failure of the five UAE players to report the approaches has not only cost each of them their careers but had an immediate impact on the team. Two weeks after the ICC’s anti-corruption operation ruled Naveed, Anwar, and Qadeer out of contention, the UAE played Scotland in a final eliminator to qualify for the T20 World Cup. In their absence, the UAE lost the game and failed to reach the tournament.

The UAE, and then coach Dougie Brown, responded by overhauling the team, introducing many young players with a view of building for the future. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent cancellation of fixtures has denied the new-look team an extended opportunity to show its worth, but there is no taking away from the fact that the side is substantially weaker without its established, suspended players.

The UAE boasts arguably the finest cricket facilities in the world. The Gulf nation became Pakistan’s ‘home’ after the Lahore terrorist attack in 2009 made international cricket in Pakistan unfeasible. It is hosting this year’s Indian Premier League due to the pandemic and staged the first four editions of the Pakistan Super League.

The ambition has always been for the UAE to have a competitive team worthy of country’s cricket setup. Until last year, the progress suggested they were trending in the right direction. Only time will tell how much damage the corruption scandal has caused to the UAE’s long-term cricket aspirations.