The Rise Of Cricket In Oman

30 Nov 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Cricket’s growth as a competitive sport is snowballing as Oman raked on crucial wins to qualify for the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in Australia. Team Y sits down with the national team and their management to find out how putting in the hard yards extends outside the pitch.

It’s a match made in heaven for Oman’s cricket team.

Victory is lurking in the air – and all that stands in the way of decades of hard work and resilience is a hard-wearing and in-form team from Hong Kong.

But, 13 runs from one ball reads the scorecard: it’s in Oman’s favour.

The national team has spun its opponents into an unmanageable position in their do-or-die match to qualify for the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup that’s due for play in Australia in 2020.

Emotions are running high too, as an ecstatic Madursinh Jesrani, General Secretary of the Oman Cricket board, is seen scrambling towards the boundary rope on live television.

Madhursinh Jesrani on his lap of honour. Photo credit: ICC/YouTube

The commentator exclaims: “He’s going for a lap of honour. Hang on! There’s a ball to go.”

Fayyaz Butt firing one past Hong Kong bastman. Photo credit: ICC/YouTube

And sure enough, Oman takes the match as paceman Fayyaz Butt fires one past Hong Kong’s Mohammed Ghazanfar’s nose, winning the Sultanate the match by a stout 12 runs.

Photo credit: ICC/YouTube

The final score reads: Oman 137/4 and Hong Kong 122/9 from their 20 overs. The team has finally overcome their final hurdle – and the lap of honour can finally begin.

A colonial sport originated in the UK that only found its way into the Sultanate in 1979 by the founder of Oman Cricket (the nation’s officiating cricket body), Kanaksi G. Khimji, cricket has only now begun weaving its way into the lives of young Omanis.

Today, the Omani cricket team is still comprised largely of expats – but we learn that it’s set a base for the crowd to build on.

It’s a testament to the temperament of the players as the country jumps from 40 to 16 in Men’s ODI (One-Day International) rankings worldwide – a list that features countries such as Australia, India, UK, and South Africa; all countries that have over 100 years of experience in the game.

This is a fact pointed out by the official representative of Oman Cricket, Pankaj Khimji, who is also a prolific and established businessman and Chairman of the well-known Khimji Group. In a joint interview with the team and Madursinh Jesrani at the Oman Cricket office in Al Amerat, he tells us: “We are on cloud nine. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

“We have achieved so much in so less time. And that shows you how much the sport has grown in Oman in the last four decades. It’s incredible, if you think about it.

“The Oman cricket team has a mix of players from Asia, and they’ve all become a family after playing so much for Oman. And when you’re with your family, you give them 100 per cent of what you have.

“That creates a bond in them and motivates them to perform to their fullest potential.”

Support from local families

But, as Pankaj rightly points out, the success of cricket in Oman goes beyond just its players’ strengths and integrity. It also comes down to whether there’s support from local establishments for the sport to flourish.

He says: “For a country to come ahead so quickly, there must be backing – and that’s what has helped cricket in the nation grow. This has happened in many countries, including the likes of India, Pakistan, England, and so on.

“[This is true] if you look back at the history of cricket. Even if it’s in the Indian subcontinent, cricket has flourished when families or institutions back them up. I’m not very aware how, but if you go back to the days of cricket in Pakistan, you had corporate sponsors such as the PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) and Habib Bank that supported the local Pakistani team immensely.

“And because you had them, you have players of the likes of Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan – the cricketers of the 1970s and 1980s – becoming household names.

“Back then, there wasn’t much remuneration. There was no material benefit to cricketers. Cricket was being backed by institutions and families who were just passionate about the game.

The same goes for cricket in India. He adds: “Cricket in Mumbai was backed by the Nirlons family, Air India, and so on. So, it was the families and institutions that had a passion. And this extends to modern-day cricket too.”

He’s right. Today, the Ambani (from Mumbai) and Sreenivasan (from South India) families, alongside Bollywood cricketers back up Indian cricket – all of whom have come together to raise India above the likes of England and Australia, to clinch top spot across various formats (T20, ODI, and Test) in the game.

Pankaj explains: “And that’s why I say, if you don’t have that passion that causes a spark to ignite a fire and keep it burning, then cricket will not carry on,” before going on to add how it was the Tawoos, Khimji, Muscat Pharmacy, and Al Turki families who took the game ahead in the country.”

Supporters have kept flowing in too with more family businesses like the Mohandas, Assarain, and Chaitanya Khimji families jumping on board to help grow the sport in Oman. The national team is currently accredited by both the ICC (International Cricket Council) and ACC (Asian Cricket Council).

And, just as Pankaj wraps up his statements, Madursinh (fondly dubbed, ‘Madhu Bhai (‘Madhu brother’ by his peers), butts in to say: “Without these families, there would be no cricketers here.”

The achievements of Oman cricket

That said, Oman’s achievement in the sport is commendable. Before sealing a berth in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in 2020, they also secured ODI status that enables them to play 50-over (300-balls-per-side) competitive cricket on an international level.

The team has also been ranked 16th globally with 174 points, which is only a few points under Namibia but a substantial lead over its next team, Nepal.

What’s more astonishing is how Oman’s Zeeshan Maqsood and Khawar Ali are, at the time of publishing this article, ranked as the eighth- and 10th best all-rounders in T20 International cricket – a list that includes world-renowned players such as Australia’s Glenn Maxwell (Rank 2), Sri Lanka’s Thishara Perera (Rank 13), and New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner (Rank 12).

Oman also famously upset an in-form Ireland at the ICC World T20 World Cup in Dharamsala, India, in 2016. And even though the team couldn’t qualify to the final rounds, they were hailed for holding their composure as an amateur-playing side.

In an interview with the head coach of the Oman cricket team – who is also a (former) iconic Sri Lankan cricketer – Duleep Mendis, we learn about how Oman is striving to progress quickly through hard work and determination.

He tells us: “The Oman cricket team is a mixture of great talents who have played cricket for many years. They’re professional in the way they go about their cricket, and it’s now up to the coaches to guide them into focusing their efforts into playing the game competitively. I think we have achieved a lot in the last four years, and we must thank the management for the support and the players for their willpower in taking the game forward.”

It’s an emotion that’s shared by former international cricketers Anil Kumble (former Indian captain) and Mahela Jayawardene (former Sri Lankan captain).

In an exclusive interview with Y, Kumble says: “I’ve heard a lot of Oman Cricket. It’s good to see the progress in the last five years, but it’s also important to highlight the progress of 40 years. There are a lot of unsung heroes who have toiled hard without any reward. But of course, a reward would be getting the ODI status.”

Meanwhile, Jayawardene is keen on highlighting how Oman’s diverse team is what has led to the quick progress. He elucidates: “A lot of countries have benefited from expats in their teams, especially those in the Middle-East region. The expat population are the ones who started the game here in Oman – and it has come a long way.”

“But a lot of work must be done, as you need to grow the game locally as well. Oman has taken the right direction as it’s important for the national team to achieve great things so that the next generation can know what they must do after them.

“It’s a competitive world, you’ve got more than 90 teams playing the game globally in different leagues – and to be among the top 20 is something special for a population that’s as little as four-and-a-half million.”

Oman’s way forward

Pankaj is quick to point out how the national team is among only a few countries where their players aren’t contracted by the cricket board.

Y learns that much of the team members work full-time jobs and play cricket on weekends and days off and rely on their companies to grant them leaves for international games.

Pankaj explains: “If you look at UAE cricketers, they have a contract. But, even there, if you don’t have a family or two or three non-cricketing institutions to back them up, the game isn’t going to progress as planned.

“I’ve spoken to my colleagues in the UAE about this. We’re friends now and we play cricket on that level and are together all the time for tours or games here. We share our thoughts on the game, and we’ve shown that you need individuals to bind good players together. If you don’t have that, it’s going to go.”

He then asks a question: “Is there going to be another Kanaksi Khimji to take the game to the next generation in Oman?”

“I honestly don’t know. At 65, I’d like to call it a day and pass the baton on to someone else. You need to build an environment of cricket and look after the cricketers. It’s not just about how much money you pour in.

“The span of a cricketer is very small. There’s 10 – or at a stretch 15 years – of cricket in each player. And in that time, we need to make sure they earn some form of respect and compensation to look after their families and, most importantly, how they must earn something to sustain themselves after cricket.

“This institution is trying to do that. We need to retire boys, and those who have been on the fringe and not made it to the national team. Our job now as stakeholders is to find out what happens to the bench strength and those who have contributed and are now playing domestic cricket.”

In its process of molding the environment that Pankaj speaks of, Oman Cricket built its first cricket stadium in 2012. With land donated by the Ministry of Sports Affairs and money (RO2mn or US$5.2mn) raised by corporate sponsorships, the stadium now boasts floodlights, a full-fledged office, meeting rooms, and a grassy pitch to emulate Oman’s natural pitch conditions.

This complements the indoor facilities at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex’s training pitches and a handful of local practice nets set by individual investors.

Zeeshan Maqsood, the captain of the Oman team, is in awe over the facilities. He says: “When we head out of Oman to play cricket, we see a lot of countries don’t have favourable conditions for playing the game. Many grounds are small, and it only tells us how we must be proud of the facilities we’ve been provided.

“I think a lot of why cricket is becoming more popular in Oman is because of the efforts of Oman Cricket management, the supporters, and the Ministry of Sport.”

Owing to this, Zeeshan Maqsoon, Bilal Khan, and Khawar Ali have all been selected to partake in international premier leagues in India and Pakistan; the details of which are yet to be officially disclosed.

All of this is helping nurture talent in Oman. A trip to Naseem Garden shows us how both expats and Omanis come together to play the sport. While the games are still non-competitive in nature, Pankaj believes it’s important to build the name of the sport from the ground up.

Cricket as an amateur sport

Pankaj says: “I firmly believe that cricket is still an amateur sport. There are teams that are in the top 10 that are playing on a different league, but if you look at teams from ranks 15 to 25, it’s a highly competitive amateur sport.

“But even so, there’s a level of competitiveness there, and we’re all grooming our boys to take that on and do the best they can. Today, whatever the team has achieved, we’re all very proud of.

Madursinh breaks his silence to add: “I mean, honestly, we couldn’t ask for anything better. That’s what is relayed through our emotions,” citing his impromptu run for the boundary rope that was captured on television.

Pankaj smiles, as he then says: “We are a family. His emotion is my emotion and vice versa. If the players have any concerns, they can come to us. They can share anything with us. Today, it’s not about taking them to Al Bustan Palace for a dinner; it’s about taking them home.

“We have the support from many individuals and the Ministry of Sport. They’ve been rewarding the players individually for their successes. We want to keep on adding – and our end goal would be to keep growing at the pace we are and keep taking Oman’s name to levels beyond what we even imagined.

“His Majesty has given us the biggest present to Oman Cricket to move on to the next level.”

How is Oman going to tackle the T20 World Cup?

Zeeshan Maqsood

Born: Pakistan

Role: Captain/All-rounder

Batting: Left-handed

Bowling: Slow left-arm orthodox

“When the team is performing as we are, we hope to continue that momentum into our upcoming series – as well as the T20 World Cup. We’ll try our best to win all the games and perform the way the management and the team wants. We need to play like a team and a family – only then will we do better. We are all focusing on our skills, and we will fight.”

Bilal Khan

Born: Pakistan

Role: Pace Bowler

Bowling: Left-arm fast medium

“For fast bowlers like us, it won’t be difficult to adjust to the Australian conditions. But our main aim will be to bowl from wicket to wicket without much margin for error. There’s plenty of swing there, and it’ll be fun to scare the batsman. In Scotland, I enjoyed scaring the batsmen with the short ball. The new ball can be dangerous in pace-y pitches such as those. In Amerat, however, there’s good swing too with reverse swing from the wind that comes into the ground here. In our last match against Hong Kong, captain [Zeeshan Maqsood] said, “Let’s give this game our all. It’s a do-or-die match.” That we did – and we won it. We hope to apply the same mindset in Australia as we take on those who qualified.”

Khawar Ali

Born: Pakistan

Role: All-rounder

Batting: Right-handed

Bowling: Right-arm leg break

“Overseas conditions are different to what we see in Oman – and that can pose challenges. But we’ve played so much international cricket, such as the tournament in Scotland – which allows us to learn the pitch and how we must navigate it. As a player, this allows us to get acclimatised to the grounds. So, we hope to perform when we head to Australia. But, before that, we have a few more games to concentrate on.”

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