It's not everyday that you have a man more than halfway between his 43rd and 44th birthdays carrying the hopes of the country he represents at the Cricket World Cup. But, then again, it's not everyday that someone 43 years and 162 days old scores a One-Day International century either. When he did that, in November last year, Khurram Khan became the oldest ODI centurion ever, his unbeaten 132 taking him past Sanath Jayasuriya on the list.
Khurram, born in Multan, moved to Dubai in 1999 to work with an airline company, and is one of many cricketers in the United Arab Emirates team who continue to be amateurs. They work through the day and train under Aaqib Javed in the evenings at the International Cricket Council Academy in Dubai, trying to get in shape for the World Cup.
A former captain of the UAE team, Khurram spoke to Wisden India on the team's preparations, the lack of unrealistic ambitions at World Cup and more.
No neutral probably expects too much from UAE at the World Cup. How does that make you feel as you get ready to play the World Cup?
All the associate teams are practicing and having all their camps as final preparation for the World Cup and so are we. We played matches against Afghanistan probably a month ago now. We played four ODIs and managed to win three. It was a very good series for us and was a check before the World Cup. Unfortunately, we couldn't play the series that Scotland, Afghanistan and Ireland played because of other commitments that we had. The team was busy and we had a camp.
Among the associates, we are all quite equal; I won't rate anybody higher than us. They're all good teams and have always played competitive cricket.
As far as the international teams are concerned, obviously it's a different ball game for us. For our fans and for others who are supporting us, I don't want to say that there is a good chance of us winning the World Cup, but obviously as the UAE team, we definitely have a target that we are looking forward to-of winning at least two games.
[UAE are grouped with India, Pakistan, South Africa, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Ireland.]
When I say two games, everybody will say we are an associate, and though Zimbabwe are not, they've not been doing well lately. But the kind of cricket we've been playing in the last year or so, you never know, we can upset anyone. If we play the way we used to play in our practice matches, you never know.
Tell us more about that tour of Australia...
It was a very helpful tour, to be honest. We've never played in Australia before. The wickets were obviously different, but if you say that, 'you were there for 15-20 days and now you know the conditions', it's not going to happen. But it has given us a little bit of an idea of what we might face. India has been there for a month and half or two months.
They always go there but that does not mean that they still understand the conditions. I think it's going to be very hard when we go there and the wickets are going to be different. We played in New Zealand as well. We had a few matches there.
That time we were playing against associate nations and it was a different ball game and now we're going to play top international teams. We've got Pakistan, India, South Africa, West Indies in our pool. So it's going to be completely different. Talking about the matches I'm looking forward to, yes, Ireland and Zimbabwe, everyone's going to say that is more logical, but we've got our strengths and we definitely can upset international teams as well.
It's quite fascinating that all of you are amateurs - you work in the day and train in the evening. Surely it's a handicap that you are not full-time cricketers?
It is a huge difference now. We have a feeling of being professional because we've been having camps, having camps abroad, we went to Australia for 25 days, where we were not doing anything else but practicing. The guys love fitness, they're putting in the required hard work, and I think we have started enjoying it. If you were to compare it with the last year or two, our fitness and performances have gone up a lot. So it's not like the guys don't want to do it but the jobs don't permit us to do that. We would love to be professional.
It must be tiring too?
Most of them are okay at the moment. What happens is, when you go for these events, some of us take annual leave, some take unpaid leave, you don't get salary, but the cricket board tries to compensate. It's not been easy but some of the guys couldn't get leaves on time and they've missed a few tours. So it's not easy but we're working on it.
Aaqib Javed has obviously made a difference to the standard of the team. Tell us about his contribution...
He's obviously a very hard worker. He has changed this team's thinking differently. He has worked really hard and this is his work ethic and we've loved it. It's been a couple of years now since he came and when he started he said he would take UAE to three World Cups and everybody was laughing. It's a huge task and it's a huge thing to say in the newspapers, but he literally did it. First U-19 World Cup we qualified as the host nation. Then we qualified for the World Twenty20 and the 50-over World Cup last year. I think he has been a huge influence. He completely changed the way we used to think, the way we used to operate. He's put a lot of hard work into it.
Do you think that playing the associate teams and not the bigger ones has been a handicap - especially seeing that you would be playing the World Cup now?
Obviously we have been playing a lot of cricket but we've been playing cricket among each other. We've been playing Scotland, Ireland, all the associates and affiliate teams, but I would personally like to see the ICC putting more of an effort into it.
We've been given A-team tours, like we've been given India A team, Pakistan A, Sri Lanka A team, or any other A teams of Test-playing nations. That's the difference.
Yes, we've been playing each other, but since we don't have that much of a young talent coming up - for us in the UAE it is because of the rule in the country that after you reach 18 years you have to leave the country, either you go for studies or your father has to support you, so we cannot have a lot of youngsters playing. So obviously if we play these A teams it'll be very, very helpful.
The team is made up of expatriates - how does that work?
What happens is, there are a lot of Pakistani guys, to be honest. Lots of Pakistani and Sri Lankan guys come when there's no cricket back home. Obviously, Pakistan doesn't have much cricket because of security concerns where no foreign teams are going. India has more money than any other country, so not many Indians are coming. Sri Lankans and Pakistanis do come here during their off-season when there's no cricket happening.
The top players like Misbah-ul-Haq or (Mohammad) Hafeez aren't coming, but otherwise, I've seen everybody coming here and playing cricket. So our domestic structure has gone up. But these guys cannot stay here and play full-time cricket because they have their contracts with counties and Big Bash and different places because T20 is being played all over the world now. So what they do is come here, play one or two tournaments and go back. They can't be of any use for us for the UAE.
Do you think, over time, a fan base for cricket has developed in the UAE?
There are already lots of eyes on us. It's been advertised very well here. Lots of youngsters and whoever has been playing cricket, they're already watching us in the camps. They're seeing what we're doing domestically and people are watching what we're doing. It's going to help, obviously. More players will lure more guys in. Some of the guys playing, some of them never thought they'd be representing any international tournament. So once they see that we're doing it, now they see their chances and start working harder.
Coming back to the World Cup, tell us what it is about the UAE team that the bigger teams should be worried about....
Bowling is our strength, to be honest. We have some good bowlers, and some who can bowl over 140 (kph), which can be a surprise for some of the teams because they wouldn't have thought of playing against UAE that has bowlers like that. Earlier we used to be an all-spin attack. It was not far ago, probably a year or year and a half ago, we used to have one bowler as a medium pacer and the second new-ball bowler as a spinner and that used to be our strength in those days. That has changed now. The credit for that goes to Aaqib. He has totally changed the way we used to think. Now we have a fast bowling attack with four or five fast bowlers.
Live Score, News & WC 2019 Updates