UAE’s One-Day International (ODI) status hangs in a fine balance after they finished seventh in the ICC Cricket World Cup League 2. They lost five of their six matches in the multi-team event and as a result have no choice but to play the World Cup Qualifiers playoffs in Namibia, starting February 26.
UAE have already unearthed some young guns who are certain to go on to serve them for years to come – be it their current vice-captain Vriitya Aravind, Aryan Lakra and Sanchit Sharma. However, if there is one player who is raising up the ranks quickly is the teenager Aayan Afzal Khan, who recently became the youngest to feature in a T20 World Cup and just a day before his 17th birthday, had also made his One-Day International (ODI) debut and slammed a fifty!
Aayan might be just 17 now, but he has been around for some time, first taking to cricket when he was just five years old, thanks to a lot of encouragement from his parents who spotted his talent at a ripe age.
It seemed apt that he had already played the Under-19 Asia Cup, the Under-19 World Cup and also in the T20 World Cup
“I started cricket when I was five. I started cricket in UAE at the Sharjah Cricket Academy (SCA). I have been playing cricket for almost 12 years,” Aayan said of his journey in a chat with Cricket.com.
“After Sharjah, I moved to DCCA [The Desert Cubs Cricket Academy]. DCCA has also helped me a lot. There I have trained for at least four years. After that, I moved to Victoria. Victoria is an academy that gave me a chance to show my talent in the ECB national league which happens here every year. I was the leading run-scorer two times.
“After that, I got called for UAE Under-16. There I scored my first fifty against Iran. Then, I kept working hard in Victoria. I was called for the UAE Under-19 team - for Asia Cup and the Under-19 World Cup that happened in West Indies. That was a big moment. That was a huge moment. I scored 38 in the Asia Cup against India, then scored 93 against West Indies in the U-19 World Cup. That made my name a lot in the UAE. That was a big moment.”
What followed was a senior call-up just ahead of the T20 World Cup. He made his debut in the T20I series against Bangladesh, in September last year, picking up the key wicket of Litton Das before chipping in with a 17-ball 25 with the bat during UAE’s narrow defeat.
While his inclusion in such a high-profile tournament came as a surprise to many, Aayan had realised his dream of playing in the tournament.
“It was really a nice experience to play in Australia. It was my dream to play at the T20 World Cup. By God's grace, it happened at such a young age,” Goa-born Aayan said.
“It was great for me to play for UAE, playing under head coach Robin Singh and my skipper Rizwan CP. Unfortunately, we just won a game out of three. Inshallah, we will be playing more T20 World Cups. It was a great moment for me and my family that I played in the T20 World Cup at such a young age.”
Ahmed Raza and Rohan Mustafa have been pillars of UAE cricket over the years. While Raza recently took over as UAE’s assistant coach, Mustafa at 34 is still going strong. For Aayan, playing with both of them was nothing short of surreal, and if anything, was a big learning curve. The trio played together for Fujairah in the Emirates D20 competition with Raza, the captain of the side, overseeing the then 15-year-old's growth.
“Raza and Mustafa have helped me a lot. Raza has given me many tips with my left-arm spin. Mustafa, was my favourite player in the UAE as he was an all-rounder; I'm also an all-rounder. When I was a child I used to see Rohan Mustafa, he used to take many awards and do so much for UAE,” Aayan explained.
“Then I thought I also want to play with him. Five years ago, he gave me an award in the school tournament. After that, it was my dream to play with him. By God's grace, I am playing in the same team.”
While Aayan’s primary role in the team is that of a spin bowler, he says batting is something he prefers. He showed his prowess with the bat against Nepal, where his maiden unbeaten fifty ensured UAE from getting bowled out for an embarrassing total after losing nine wickets under 100. While that may have ended in a losing cause, he scored an unbeaten 35 off 54 deliveries in a low-scoring thriller in his next ODI against Namibia in Dubai.
Chasing 92, Aayan walked in at seven with his side struggling at 53 for 5. He scored 35 of his side’s next 42 runs to ensure UAE scrapped over the line. On both occasions, his temperament was tested and on both occasions, he passed with flying colours.
“I was initially a fast bowler, then I turned into a spinner. I used to open [the batting] from Under-14 till Under-19. I prefer batting more. I have worked on my spin bowling also. My dad, has helped me a lot in batting. Every day, we used to train for at least two hours. I have worked hard on my batting. Now it is helping me hold my nerve and score against good teams,” Aayan said.
Speaking of his maiden ODI fifty, Aayan said, “Nepal - It was my debut ODI series. The third game I scored a half-century. It was an important knock because we were we were 88  for 9 and after that our total score was 188  for 9. So, it was the most important knock, scoring a crucial fifty against Nepal.”
Aayan may not have had a huge impact in the International League T20 (ILT20), where he was part of Gulf Giants that won the title. However, sharing the dressing room with some of the top T20 cricketers of the world like Tom Banton, Shimron Hetmyer, Chris Lynn, among others would certainly have been an unforgettable experience for him.
However, Aayan, who prefers T20s to the 50-over format, says India all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja is someone who he has always looked upto.
“My role model is Ravindra Jadeja from India. I used to follow him a lot because he is also a left-arm spinner, he is also an all-rounder, he fields good. That kind of all-rounders are the all-rounders I like a lot. He gives his 100% in all three aspects of the game. So, he's my favourite player,” Aayan, who moved to the UAE when he was just two said.
With talent, temperament and age on his side, UAE would hope Aayan goes on to live up to the promise he has shown.
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