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Sultanate of swing: The rise of cricket in Oman

Oman is famous for its frankincense, formidable fortresses, dazzling souks and rugged natural beauty.

As with much of the Middle East, football is king in Oman. But if the last month proved anything, there is another sport growing in prominence in the oil-rich sultanate: cricket.

Just over a decade ago, Oman did not have adequate practice grounds for the youth to play on, let alone a professional cricket stadium.

“Fifteen years ago, we used to play cricket on sand and cement using a tennis ball,” 29-year-old digital entrepreneur Shami Patel, who grew up and lives in Muscat, told TRT World. “My friends who would play in league tournaments got hurt often because they were playing on these hard gravel grounds.”

Now in 2021, there are two international standard, picturesque grounds in Al Amerat a short distance away from Muscat.

Then its big break came. Originally scheduled to take place in India, the 2021 T20 World Cup (T20 is the shortest format of the game) was moved to Oman and the UAE amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tabbed as co-hosts in July, Oman had 90 days to prepare for one of its biggest ever sporting events. Al Amerat was swiftly refurbished, its capacity upgraded from 3,000 to 4,500 seats, while the venue’s lighting system was enhanced, and a media centre and press box added.

In the end, it hosted six matches and played in three during the first round of the tournament, as it became the first International Cricket Council (ICC) Associate member to both host and compete in the event.

“It’s a huge achievement to participate and host the T20 World Cup,” a Senior Oman Cricket official told TRT World. “It has put Oman on the map in terms of its culture, heritage, tourism and hospitality.”

After Oman steamrolled Papua New Guinea on the lush Oman Cricket Academy Ground in Amerat on October 17, Oman Cricket (OC) boss Pankaj Khimji described it as “living a dream.”

Despite not being able to progress to the Super 12s stage of the tournament – after spirited losses to more established sides like Bangladesh and Scotland – Oman’s national team has risen in the international ranks in a short period of time.

“The team played some fantastic cricket in the last couple of weeks, and it was no [less] than a 100 percent from them. There is much more to look forward to,” the Oman Cricket official said.

The modern era of cricket in Oman is ultimately linked to its historic relationship with the Indian subcontinent – more specifically, the role spearheaded by the illustrious Khimji family.

Dubbed the “godfather of cricket” in the sultanate, the late Kanaksi Khimji (the father of current OC head Pankaj) laid the foundation for the sport, persuading the Omani royal family to support the formal establishment of Oman Cricket in 1979.

Labelled “the world’s only Hindu sheikh,” Kanaksi’s grandparents came to Oman around 150 years ago from India as traders. Today, the Khimji Ramdas conglomerate is omnipresent in Oman across every conceivable commercial sector, while retaining strong ties with India and the UAE.

Kanaksi maintained his role as OC chairman from its inception until his passing in February at 85. He was recognised by world cricket governing body International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2011 with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to Omani cricket.

Growth and challenges

It’s been a journey of ups and downs to end up where the Omani national squad stands today – as one of the top 15 teams in the world with the white ball.

After gaining admission as an ICC Affiliate nation in 2000, Oman made it to the 2005 ICC Trophy in Ireland and appeared at the 2009 ICC World Cup qualifier in South Africa. Despite a series of relegations in the following years, Oman would fight to gain Associate status in 2014.

An impressive resurgence was then staged at the 2015 World T20 qualifier in Scotland and Ireland, where wins over Afghanistan, Netherlands and Canada were capped off with a knockout victory over Namibia to reach the 2016 T20 World Cup. A historic win over Ireland at the competition then sparked a rejuvenation in 50-over cricket.

By 2019, Oman had achieved One-Day International (ODI) status for the first time. As of writing, the team’s win-loss record over 19 ODIs is an impressive 13-5 with 1 no-decision, while its T20 record in 39 games is 17 wins and 21 losses.

When glancing at the current crop of players, it is dominated by those from the subcontinent. Indian and Pakistani expatriates make up the overwhelming majority of the national squad’s composition compared to native Omanis, who have never accounted for more than 13 percent of the team.

All-rounder Zeeshan Maqsood, the team’s captain since 2019, is originally from Pakistan, while explosive opening batsman Jatinder Singh is from India. The team’s coach, Duleep Mendis, is a former Sri Lankan cricketer. The one local Omani that has been in the squad for over six years now is bowler Sufyan Mehmood.

“The players have generally been in Oman for a while. In fact, players such as Jatinder Singh and Aqib Ilyas are homegrown players whose parents worked in the country and did their education from childhood in Oman and have now been pillars for the national side,” the OC official said.

In the meanwhile, the OC said there is an effort to put a talent pipeline in place and reach out to more Omanis.

In January 2020 before the pandemic hit, a grassroots development programme was rolled out which included 10 local Omani schools where children would be taught the basics of the game to boost popularity amongst the Arab population.

Quotas of Arab Omani players have been introduced at both national and club levels as well. The OC declares its goal is to have 50 percent of the national team composed of Omanis over the next ten to fifteen years.

For now, the sport in the sultanate remains semi-professional in structure. Players on the national team all have nine-to-five jobs, and some are on semi-hybrid contracts (where they are employed by an organisation but paid by OC when absent from work).

With most players being expats, whose local residency is based on work visas sponsored by their corporate employers, cricket will continue to be played at an amateur level. Until there is widespread Omanisation of the game, an upgrade to professional status won’t be feasible.

Those challenges aside, Omani cricket fan Suleiman Al Aisry believes his country’s involvement in the T20 World Cup was a huge step forward for the game’s future and changing domestic perceptions too.

“If you told anyone in Oman ten years ago that we would be hosting and playing in cricket matches at the highest level, they would have laughed at you,” Al Aisry told TRT World.

“We’ve already accomplished so much with limited resources. Millions around the globe now witnessed that Oman is part of the cricketing fraternity,” he said, adding that it would only boost Oman’s prospects for hosting international cricket in the future.

“I have no doubt it will only get better from here.”

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