Asia Cup Qualifier: UAE 'will come back hard against Hong Kong' in final, says captain Rohan Mustafa
There was a time when both UAE and Hong Kong were used to travelling together to compete with the top brass of Asian cricket.
In both 2004 and 2008, each of the non-Test playing nations were included in Asia Cups that were split into two groups of three. It seemed as though Asia, at least, was making an effort to look beyond its established territories.
Much has changed in the decade since. Afghanistan, whose cricket was in its infancy back then, have flourished to the point where they are now part of the status quo, entering tournaments like the Asia Cup with a free pass.
Meanwhile, the broader game has done its best to swap expansionism for a ring-fence around the elite.
UAE and Hong Kong will now be doing battle for the one place at the big show, when they meet in Thursday’s Qualifier final in Malaysia.
The prize is significant. The winners will play Asia Cup pool matches at the 25,000 seater Dubai International Stadium against Pakistan on September 16, and India on September 19.
That incentive is “as big as playing in the World Cup,” for the players, the UAE coach Dougie Brown said before the Qualifier started.
The UAE players might have grown used to dealing with pressure in a year that has brought a succession of challenges that have been many and varied.
So far, at least the players have coped well, leaving their management and supporters to deal with frayed nerves instead.
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UAE beat Oman by 13 runs in a nervy, must-win match on Tuesday, to secure their place in the final. At times this year, Brown has responded to such tension by going off for a wander and finding a lucky corner to sit in. There was no such opportunity in Malaysia, much to his chagrin.
“It was very tense and I wasn’t able to find a lucky tree,” Brown said. “We were stuck in PMOA [players and match officials area].
"I’d have liked to have got away from that environment for half an hour or so, but it was not to be.
“It was a very close game and I thought the guys were very good and stuck to it all the way through. When it came to the really important bits, we did the basics well and managed to get ourselves across the line.”
Brown says his side will have to be better in the final if they are to succeed against a Hong Kong side that beat them by 182 runs in pool play.
“When we are playing a team like Hong Kong in the final, realistically we need to make sure that when guys get established at the crease they go on and bat big,” Brown said.
“We know that. We spoke about it after the game, and it is something we will really be trying to address going into the game.”
Hong Kong provided the perfect template for that in the pool match between the two finalists. Anshuman Rath and Babar Hayat, their two standout players, both hit centuries and shared in a 180-run partnership for the second wicket. It set up the landslide win.
“Since that first loss against Malaysia, we have gradually played better and better cricket, and we are now carrying good momentum into the final,” Simon Cook, the Hong Kong coach, said.
“Clearly, beating UAE in the group stage has a good psychological impact for us, but that is all that is. That win now counts for nothing.”
The UAE were wounded by that defeat, and are eager to avenge it, according to captain Rohan Mustafa.
“We will come back hard against Hong Kong,” Mustafa said. “That was just our bad day when we lost to them, and we will try not to repeat the same mistakes.
“The guys are very confident, and when you have a win like we did against Oman, the morale and confidence raises even more. We will work hard and try to win the final to reach Asia Cup.”
In the tier of international competition just below Test level in Asia, UAE and Hong Kong have been regular combatants.
The two sides played each other in the final of the ACC Trophy – a precursor to the Asia Cup Qualifier that was phased out in 2012 – three times out of five between 2000 and 2008.
UAE won two of those, and were winners of that competition four times in all, as well as sharing it with Nepal when it was last played, after a tie in Sharjah in 2012.
More recently, Hong Kong beat UAE in the World Cricket League and Intercontinental Cup in 2015, as well as in the group stage at the current competition in Malaysia.
UAE, though, are the higher-ranked side. They maintained their one-day international status this year, via March’s World Cup Qualifier, while Hong Kong lost that status at the same competition.
UAE also beat Hong Kong on the way to main event at the Asia Cup T20 in Bangladesh in 2016.