UAE captain Khurram Khan, 38, is one of the classiest players on the circuit. On and off the field his immaculate and unhurried style has made him stand out from all his peers. His matches for the UAE national team are laced with fine performances with bat and ball from the day he started playing for them and for long he has been the wicket opponents have prized the most. He spoke to us in Kuala Lumpur, a few hours after signing off from his duties as purser on an Emirates flight.
“Captaincy helps my game and it’s something that’s inbuilt.”
How long have you been playing for the UAE?
I started playing in July 2001 and my first tournament was the ICC Trophy in Canada.
What took you to the UAE?
I was always playing back home and my brother was here in Dubai. He was constantly asking me to come here because there was a club where I could play. When I finished my university in Pakistan I got offered a job in the UAE soon after.
Were you always working with Emirates Airlines from the start of your time in the UAE?
Yes, I started working with Emirates in 1999. I think Arshad Ali and I were the first to qualify under the four-year rule to be able to play for the UAE.
Have you always played for Fly Emirates?
For two or three seasons I played for a club called Tariq Cricket Club, Multan in Pakistan which was a very good team. And then I played for Emirates. The good thing was I always used to play in a team which reached the final or won tournaments and so I got to play more matches and win which boosted my confidence.
How quickly did you get noticed as a cricketer in UAE?
To be honest, I was noticed very quickly because the first game I played for was the team I finally got a job in, I scored an unbeaten 100 and got two wickets. It was a difficult track because it was cement and the ball didn’t turn at all. I batted and fielding very well that day. After that very first game, I got the job as well!
Do you ever think that if you’d stayed in Pakistan you could have played for them?
I’m just happy with what I’ve achieved so far. There can be a lot of ifs and buts but I really am happy with the decisions I’ve made regarding my cricket.
Have you found that standards at club-level have increased since you first came?
I think that as far as the facilities are concerned, definitely things have improved. When we started playing there was only one ground which was the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and the rest all were cement and hard tracks where we couldn’t even field. Cricket-skills wise, there is also definite improvement as well and naturally so, because of the increase in cricket grounds and turf wickets. It has its ups and downs though.
Your generation of players, who are now in their 30s, many of them are in the national team. Is the younger talent drying up now?
I don’t think it’s drying up. There are lots of youngsters who are playing. The clubs in Dubai have under-12, under-14 and under-16 tournaments and this is very good. If you have these youngsters playing now, they will surely come up to the national team in the future. There is definitely no shortage in talent.
There is an issue now of having to include local players in age-group ACC tournaments. Is this an issue that can be resolved for the UAE?
It has to be seen from a different perspective. Let’s take myself for example, I have been living in the UAE for 13 years and still I am considered an expatriate. Lots of the guys who play are born in the UAE but are Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan and they too are still considered to be expats. This is the rule of the country because they do not give out passports. Whereas if I were in Scotland or Ireland it would be different because they have Indians and Pakistanis but they are now Scottish or Irish. It’s just a different way of looking at it. We have different regulations and it is the way it is where we are not going to get passports. If I were in any other country, I would’ve gotten a passport. There are locals coming up but it’s not a large amount of people.
Cricket is a great game. Would you see any reason why a local Arab would not want to play?
Most of them who are playing have basically been living or educated abroad like in India, Pakistan or even Australia. All these countries love cricket and this is where they learn the game from. Being in the UAE, there are other sports, like football. This is the main reason they don’t play. Twenty20 has brought in a lot of interest into the game which is very positive. If you go to the nets now you will find it hard to practice because there are so many people playing. The numbers will go up after other T20 tournaments.
How often do you get to practice?
Normally we practice three days a week. It’s not an easy schedule to follow because all of us work. Some of us work from 8am to 5pm and some have shifts which makes it difficult. Some of our players have to travel from Abu Dhabi which is two hours away. You finish work at 6 in the evening and travel two hours, practice, and it’s another two hours back. They only reach home way past midnight and the next day is work again. Therefore it’s very hard to keep up.
If you’re flying and away on work most of the time like me, then I’ve got a different fitness plan that I’ve got to work on every day. I take my elastic fitness bands along with me whenever I fly, wherever I am and do a lot of push-ups every day.
UAE’s fielding has been the best in recent tournaments. Any idea why?
Well, it all adds up to the fitness levels. If you’re not fit enough then it definitely won’t help you in the field. You just have to be professional and work hard. If cricket here can be made into a profession so you work at it just like in an office then cricket standards will improve. It should just be cricket. Afghanistan’s cricketers just play cricket and earn some money from the game and look how far they’ve come.
How does UAE now raise its game now that other teams are catching up?
These things are always in the back of your mind but you have to leave them alone if you want to compete against teams like Ireland, Scotland and Afghanistan. We have to work hard and a plan has been given to every player. We are also now organizing training in Abu Dhabi cricket stadium. We’ve not done this before and we hope this will raise out fitness levels.
At the end of the day, you aim to play good cricket.
Exactly. There are a lot of teams playing good cricket. Like Afghanistan, they have improved and are far better than what they used to be. Over the last year plus, whatever they touched has turned to gold for them. I have been following their cricket and keep a track on what’s happening. They deserve to be there and are winning all the time. The last time we met them was in South Africa for a 50-over game and we beat them quite easily and that was in the first round. After that they went on to beat Canada and Ireland and get ODI status.
Cricket is an art. It’s not something you can just learn in a couple of years. It’s obvious the Afghans have been playing for a long time.
When did you first start playing cricket and why do you like it so much?
I can’t even recall. Back home in Multan when you start walking you have a bat in your hand. My brothers, Atiq and Zeeshan, were first-class cricketers in Pakistan and that helps a lot. I still remember we used to have a very small house and around 14 cousins of mine and I used to play in the very small courtyard.
Your style is to play the ball very late. How did that come about?
I think it came because the wickets in Dubai and UAE turn in cracks and are generally very slow. Therefore if you’re early you won’t know what’s happening so you have to wait for the ball and play quite late. When you’ve been playing for a long time, you get used to this style. I’m not a hard hitting batsman, I wait and just play.
Did you have any cricketing heroes while you were growing up?
Most definitely. I used to love Saeed Anwar when he used to open for Pakistan.
Does your son play cricket?
I’m trying to push my six-year-old Zain but he’s not interested at the moment. When I go back to Pakistan for 20 days, he comes back and starts playing cricket because everybody plays there. After a month it generally dies down. In his school, there’s no cricket but in a year or so I’m going to put him in a coaching class.
What have been your best moments in cricket?
It is definitely winning the man-of-the-match against Sri Lanka where I took four wickets in the 2004 Asia Cup. Then in the game against Bangladesh in the 2008 Asia Cup I scored 78 runs.
You were captain for quite a while. When exactly did you start?
I think I was captain in the second game I played for UAE. The first game was in Canada, the second was an ACC tournament. Our original captain had to return home and after that I was appointed.
Does captaincy add to your game and make you a better player?
It depends on you. You can take advantages of choosing where you’d like to bat or when you’d bowl but as a captain you have a bigger responsibility to the youngsters in the team. I’m very cool and relaxed and always give a chance to the youngsters to develop their game. Captaincy helps my game and it’s something that’s inbuilt. I used to captain back home in Pakistan and after that in my university as well. It’s never a burden and I have a picture in my head when I’m on the field. It comes naturally.
You’ve played without a coach and also with one. What do you think a coach adds to a good cricketer?
I think coaches have a very big responsibility of improving the technical aspects of cricket as well as have a psychological effect on the players. Lots of players can’t handle pressure well and so if you have a good coach who’s positive and confident, the same mentality will be taken up by the players. That is what the coach’s role is.
Does the club and local cricket in the UAE prepare the players to deal with international cricket?
The biggest difference is playing in UAE and playing against an elite team in the ACC or ICC. When you are batting in UAE, everybody knows you and knows your style and how you play. Whereas in other competitions, people are always talking and trying to put you off your game by constantly saying things to you and it can get a bit hard. These kinds of things are now part of the game so you just have to learn how to handle it.
What made you put in all the hard work to play cricket?
I used to play with a soft tennis ball in my own backyard with cousins and after that I never played cricket with a hard ball until I was in university. I started playing proper cricket very, very late. I got success in my career very early for my club and that encouraged me a lot. I went to Lahore for a Super 6s tournament and we were an unknown, small club. There were 60 teams and we won that tournament and I was the man of the tournament. I was not a big hitter and so I just pushed and placed the ball and got runs. The PCB chairman Mr. Bukhari was distributing the prizes and he was very impressed and I got three of four job offers after that and this was also very encouraging for me. I played for the Tariq Cricket Club and it was basically the start of my career.
In your career or in the field does one thing lead to another naturally or do you have to plan?
It’s a bit of both. I’ve worked very hard and I always believe in myself as a cricketer. When I came to UAE, there were all cement wickets and I couldn’t hit the ball as hard as the others who would smack the ball all around the field. When they built the turf wickets all over I was very confident and I thought that now is going to be my time.
How will the UAE fill that gap in talent when you and national team players of your age retire at the same time?
The best thing is to keep producing youngsters and encourage them by given them a chance to play more. They will need some time to adjust and when they play with us they can improve and go on and take part for UAE.
Do you think ACC Trophy champions can go on to beat countries like Ireland, Scotland or Canada?
The thing is these teams play a lot more cricket. Like for the Irish players, they play in the UK in their domestic season which has Dutch players as well. Scottish players also play there. They are all playing county cricket and strong cricket and that is how they improve but in Asia the Test-playing nations should invite the smaller Asian cricketing nations to play a higher level of cricket. We can have tournaments where we play against their A teams. This will help us improve a lot. In a lot of cases, after the players confirm their place in the team, they have to pull out at the last minute because they are called back to work. Cricket also needs to be professionalised after which there will be a definite improvement in all countries.
Of the four wickets you took against Sri Lanka in the 2004 Asia Cup, which was the best delivery?
It was actually the match before, in the game against India. This was the day before the Sri Lanka match and I was bowling to Yuvraj. It was my tenth over and off the first five balls no runs were scored. The last ball he tried a huge shot and got bowled. That was a great feeling and it was a left-arm spinner against a left-handed batsman so to get him out was something.
Do you keep all your prizes and other cricketing memorabilia?
I try to; all the newspapers clippings and all that stuff. It’s taking up a lot of space in my house but I just can’t bring myself to throw it away.