The last match of the group stage highlighted once again the competitive unpredictability of this tournament, with UAE and Canada both still capable of finishing anywhere from 1st (and securing direct qualification to the T20 World Cup) to 6th (and missing out entirely on the playoffs). To finish in top spot would require a remarkable turnaround in NRR for either team though, which perhaps motivated Canada skipper Navneet Dhaliwal’s decision to go against conventional wisdom and give his bowlers first crack at the UAE batsmen.
Romesh Eranga and Junaid Siddiqui briefly sparked hope of a NRR-boosting rout as they both struck in the opening two overs – Eranga with a length delivery that cut back off his left-arm angle and beat the driving bat of Rohan Mustafa to knock back off stump, and Siddiqui with a rather fortunate dismissal as Chirag Suri pulled a half-tracker straight to Saad bin Zafar at midwicket. But Rameez Shahzad counterattacked, and as the first-place hopes faded, the teams settled into an arm-wrestle of an innings.
Rameez made the early running for UAE, carving a pair of loose deliveries from Siddiqui through the offside, while Mohammad Usman settled into his innings by driving a juicy full toss from Dilon Heyliger, whose direction was again lacking, to the rope at mid-on. The introduction of Saad bin Zafar rounded out the powerplay, as a tidy over was marred by a half-volley outside off which Usman drove handsomely over the infield to the rope. At 41/2 off the first 6, the innings was evenly poised.
Canada’s spinners slowly applied the squeeze with their fielders out though, Nikhil Dutta into the attack with tidy offpsin and Zafar’s left-arm orthodox producing a wicket-maiden in the 8th. His probing lines did for Rameez, who was pinned LBW in front of offstump as he missed a defensive prod. New man Darius D’Silva struggled for fluency, repeatedly picking out fielders and unable to find the rope, while Usman was able to weight his shots more effectively and collect frequent 2s. The spinners wheeled through, building pressure and ensuring there wouldn’t be any boundaries until the 15th over, when Usman capitalised on a rare loose delivery from Zafar to loft a high inside-out drive over extra cover just inside the rope.
A pivotal moment had just come and gone for Canada in the 14th, when Usman swung a bouncer from Heyliger straight to Nicholas Kirton at deep backward square. In position comfortably, he simply displayed a regrettable case of butterfingers as the catch popped straight back out. It was a drop that would prove very costly, and an embarrassing effort from a man reputed to be the best fielder in the side.
Entering the home stretch, UAE were 95/3 with 5 overs to go, and Canada still had the chance to restrict them to a manageable score. However, Dhaliwal made a tactical blunder that compounded the let-off for Usman. With only a single over remaining in Zafar’s quota, Canada had 4 overs of their seamers to go, on a night when UAE had shown themselves to be more comfortable against pace. Instead of turning to Nitish Kumar, whose flattish offspin had been difficult to get away all tournament, Dhaliwal stuck with his formula of bowling out the frontline bowlers, and was made to pay by Mohammad Usman.
First, he looted the returning Heyliger, swinging a flat-bat and straight-armed pull over midwicket for 6 delightful runs to bring up his 50, then sending a wayward legside delivery down to fine leg with another pull shot, before D’Silva finally joined in with his only boundary of the night – clearing the front leg and slogging high and long for a one-bounce 4 to cow corner. Eranga was then milked for 9 thanks to some good running before Zafar returned for his last over.
As if to highlight the mistake of not giving Kumar the ball, Zafar extracted 2 wickets in 2 deliveries with D’Silva stumped by some sharp glovework from Tariq, as Zafar saw the batsman charging and squeezed a flatter one past the outside edge of his bat. Sultan Ahmed then holed out to long-off where Kumar ran round to claim a tidy catch off the skier. Usman played out the over watchfully and Zafar had only conceded 3 runs in the 18th.
The final 2 overs went for 30 though, as the extra pace of the seamers allowed Usman and new man Waheed Ahmed to plunder 3 fours and 2 towering sixes, both slammed high over midwicket. It took the UAE from a middling total to a challenging one, and Usman to a career-best 89* from 63 deliveries. Chasing 155 from their 20, Canada needed their unsettled batting combinations to finally click.
Early signs were good, with Dhaliwal and Srimatha Wijeyeratne looking composed as they ran well, and when Wijeyeratne collected consecutive offside boundaries from seamer Junaid Siddique in the 4th over it seemed like he’d found his groove. However, he was out in the same over, edging a ramp/uppercut straight to the keeper. New man Nitish Kumar started where he’d left off against Oman, running well and rotating the strike with his captain to keep in touch with the runrate.
UAE received another decisive piece of fortune in the 8th over though, with Kumar dismissed to Canada’s third LBW shocker in two games. Walking down the pitch against Waheed’s medium pace, the bowler saw him coming and speared in a yorker, which struck Kumar’s ankle well outside the line of off stump. Adjudged out, Kumar was replaced by Nicholas Kirton, whose bad night steadily got worse as he played one of the worst T20 knocks ever seen at an ICC event. A black hole of an innings, Kirton’s stay at the crease sucked all momentum out of the chase and slowly trapped Canada despite the best efforts of his colleagues to escape.
In all, he scored 37* off 39 excruciating deliveries. There was only one boundary in his entire innings, and he struggled even with finding gaps to pick up 2s. Sensing the rut he was digging himself into, UAE skipper Ahmed Raza cannily opened up the field at long-on and long-off, allowing him to continue bunting singles down the ground even as the asking rate crept into double figures. Unable to force the tempo, Kirton soaked up ball after ball and effectively assisted the UAE bowlers in ratcheting up the scoreboard pressure.
This pressure began to tell on the batsmen at the other end too, as they needed to take more risks to make up for their struggling partner – an innings strike rate of 95 is poor in most T20 cricket, but with the required run rate a shade over 8, Kirton was scoring 30% slower than par. Dhaliwal fell victim to the need to accelerate, repeatedly walking down the track at Waheed to try and force a boundary, before he eventually pulled the trigger on the wrong ball as he fetched one from outside off and slogged it to the man in the outfield at deep midwicket. Big-hitting Hamza Tariq was next man in, a positive move that unfortunately didn’t bear fruit as he mistimed it, attempting to force an innocuous delivery past the bowler; Waheed collected a smart caught-and-bowled to take his third wicket.
Ravi Singh then came to the crease, in the 14th over with 69 required and the asking rate just above 10. Despite his poor form throughout the tournament, Singh still represented Canada’s best chance at dragging themselves back into the contest, and he briefly ignited some hope with a magnificent 6 off Zahoor Khan, using his wrists to flick a low full toss long and flat over midwicket, before slog-sweeping 4 off Mustafa in the 17th.
Increasingly agitated at Kirton still nudging singles without a boundary in the next two overs, Singh looked to repeat his flat six against Mustafa in the 19th over, but picked out the man on the rope. With him went Canada’s qualification chances, despite Heyliger at least making an attempt at the target, as he swung heavily without much success. Zahoor Khan closed out the final over to conclude an excellent fielding performance from the UAE, with bowlers disciplined in their lines and skipper Ahmed Raza astute in his field placements and bowling rotation. A third-place finish in Group B is a just reward for the leadership he has shown over the course of the tournament.
All in all it was a desperately disappointing end to Canada’s qualifying campaign, especially after they started so well by winning their first three matches – including against table-toppers Ireland. Navneet Dhaliwal and the Canadian staff were left with many “what-ifs” to ponder – most notably, the presence of Rizwan Cheema on the bench rather than in the middle. A powerful hitter with over a decade of experience for Canada, his capacity to find the rope was sorely needed tonight. And while he might have failed (he has always been a boom-or-bust proposition with the bat) he would certainly not have wasted anywhere near as many deliveries as Kirton did. Canada’s selections have been puzzling all tournament, with an unsettled opening combination, relentless churn in the middle order and underutilised spin options. The result against UAE was the culmination of all those mistakes.