“When I first came here and saw the team, I was so disappointed. I was shocked. I thought what have I gotten into! That was the first reaction. The second reaction was, wait, this is great; it’s so easy to improve them.”
Aaqib Javed still looks good for a few overs at decent pace. But, in his mid-forties now, he is happy being the coach of the United Arab Emirates team, which is currently training hard under lights at the Dubai Sports City in preparation for the Asian Cricket Council Premier League in Malaysia, starting later this month.
§ here. Not everyone can make it every day, because none of them are professionals and they have day jobs to take care of, but when they do, they train hard and tough. The results have been showing too, with UAE earning One-Day International status recently (till 2018) when they qualified for the 2015 50-over World Cup.
At some level, however, it must have been a bit of a comedown for Aaqib to quit the various positions he has held with Pakistan cricket, including assistant coach of the national team, and switch to UAE. “My daughter wanted to live here,” he tells Wisden India, explaining that the decision was taken away from his hands. “When we played, there was no responsibility, no family; I could do whatever I wanted. Free. But when you have a family, you have to think. My wife and daughter sealed it.”
That’s the nice answer. There must be one readers would like more, surely?
“I worked with Pakistan cricket for 10-12 years. First, I was with the Under-15 team, then the Under-17 team, and then with the Under-19 team that won the World Cup in 2004. I was assistant coach of the national team. I was chief coach at the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) academy. But there was no progress. People were passing me and getting the big jobs,” he says. The words suggest he felt slighted, but Aaqib’s tone is matter of fact. He’s not given to surliness as such. Indeed, with him, a burst of laughter or a clap of hands is always just a moment away.
“I was getting sick, but didn’t know what to do. I got no recognition in Pakistan. The system is in a mess. No one knows what’s going on. So when we came here for the Test series against England in 2012, which we won 3-0, someone from UAE cricket offered me a job. My first reaction was ‘what, are you mad or what!’ But then I spoke to Mudassar Nazar (the chief coach as the ICC Academy in Dubai) and my wife and daughter wanted me to move, so it was done.”
The Test series against England got over on February 6, and Aaqib had agreed to join the UAE team on February 10, though the formalities took close to another month to get sorted.
During his playing days, Aaqib was regarded as one of the cleanest Pakistani cricketers, the match-fixing stories never scalding him. In many ways, it was with characteristic niceness that he approached the job in UAE, once he convinced himself that it was worth doing.
“All the players gave excuses. They said they couldn’t train, they had jobs … I requested them to give three months to me, and after that, if they chose, they could leave,” says Aaqib, his eyes smiling. “In three months, two of the fat guys had lost 25 kilos each and the others had also lost weight. They complained, but they were buying new clothes. When you train hard, you get mentally tough also. You are willing to work hard. They were feeling good.”
At that stage, the team had just a one-member support staff – Aaqib. Over time, Aaqib has acquired assistant coaches, trainers, the usual group of people that a modern-day coach has around him at the top level. “I got tired, yaar,” he says. “We got trainers, but I had to train them too! I needed a pool of players and even that I had to go and find. That’s how it is. The administrators here are also part-timers. Things are improving now, but two years back, it wasn’t so serious. But there was a desire to have a good team, which we have now.”
It was soon after his appointment that local journalists asked Aaqib what he wanted to achieve with the UAE team. He had just about settled down and had no clue where he was going with the team. “But they had all welcomed me, made me feel at home, so I had to say something. I didn’t know what the plans were, so I said that we were going to qualify for the Under-19 World Cup, the World Twenty20 and the ODI World Cup,” he says, slapping his thigh and lapsing into a guffaw. “I just told them what came to my mind and we have done it now. It’s happened, boss!”
While teams like Ireland and Afghanistan have been the best of the non-Test playing nations in recent times and the Netherlands put in a terrific performance at the recent World T20, Aaqib says UAE are not too far behind. “We haven’t lost to Afghanistan in a one-day match (List A) in three years. Ireland have an edge, they are in a professional set-up and play county cricket. But we are getting better.
“The other day we played a game against Kings XI Punjab when they were training for the IPL. They were quite impressed with our fast bowlers. Slowly things are moving in the right direction. But players should get contracts, a retainership. We are moving towards it. That should help as an incentive.”
Indeed, watching them in the nets, one is impressed by Kamran Shahzad’s pace and Mohammad Naveed’s controlled swing. Khurram Khan, of course, is the captain of the team and the best-known player, while a number of others like Chirag Suri, Swapnil Patil and Ahmed Raza are familiar names to people who have even a passing interest in UAE cricket. It’s doubly impressive when you think that Khurram is an airline steward for much of the day and the others work in advertising agencies, or hold marketing jobs and so on.
The fact that most players are expatriates from Pakistan or India doesn’t bother Aaqib. “That’s not for me to think about. If no one has a problem, why would I have a problem,” he asks, adding that it’s not a wonder that the team’s fast bowlers have gained more from his presence than anyone else. “When I came here, we had four spinners and one medium pacer in the XI. Now, we play with four seamers and one spinner – an allrounder.”
His great feat of returning 7 for 37 against India was recorded in nearby Sharjah back in October 1991. Asked about it, Aaqib says that while he doesn’t think about his playing days much now, people he meets don’t let him forget that game. “It’s nice, people keep reminding me. I go to Sharjah often and when I do, it’s good memories. Indians say they hated me then. But it feels good to go there,” he says with a smile.
As a cricketer, he didn’t always live up to his own promise. By the end of his career, he was more of an ODI bowler and represented Pakistan in 163 ODIs, to go with 22 Tests. Apart from the 7 for 37, he was also a part of the team that won the 1992 World Cup, opening the bowling with some distinction when Waqar Younis was injured. Now though, it’s all about the UAE team. He seems content, and the team isn’t doing too badly. A few more good days, and Aaqib would have done more than he hoped to when he took up the job on a whim on that February day in 2012.