INSIDE STORY: Oman Cricket's grand plans for the future

Barnaby Read 07:00 10/05/2016
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Oman has invested heavily in the game.

It was beneath the stunning backdrop of the Himalayas that the Middle East’s newest heroes aptly celebrated scaling their sporting Everest.

Amir Ali flailed his willow to send his team soaring towards an historic World T20 victory, providing a moment of glorious vindication for Oman.

For those who had followed the Gulf state’s recent evolution, it was no surprise. After years of steady investment and the creation of a cricketing infrastructure, Ali’s performance perfectly punctuated his country’s rise up the ranks of the gentleman’s game.

The victory over Ireland – usually the ones dishing out the upsets – saw some captivating cricket from the Omanis.

Their greatest cricketing result came thanks to a group of players consisting of those familiar bank workers, marketing bods and discarded cricketers from India, Pakistan and other nations across the sub-continents – players who likely once held ambition of representing their homelands.

Together, they flourished on Indian soil, celebrating in suitable fashion at the heavily guarded Conifer Hotel after defeating Ireland.

“It was a golden day in history of Oman,” team manager Jameel Syed Zaidi told Sport360.

“We sang after victory and had a team dinner hosted by our chairman.”

That chairman has been key to Oman’s carefully orchestrated rise. The vision and funds of Kanak Khimiji and his family have driven the cricket revolution in the Sultanate.

Garnering the support – both emotional and financial – of the royal family and Oman government, Khimiji was given the green light to create the first grass wicket and cricket stadium in Muscat.

The Khimjis are an institution in Oman, having first landed in the country from India back in 1870 when Ramdas Thackersey laid the foundations for his family to go on and become one of Oman’s most powerful businesses.

So influential are the family in their adopted country, Kanak became the world’s first Hindu Sheikh after being granted citizenship by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.

Kanak founded Oman Cricket Club, for whom he serves as chairman with his son Pankaj a director.

A keen cricket fan and follower of India, Kanak used to send cash rewards to the likes of Sunil Gavaskar when pleased with their performances before that money was instead directed towards bringing cricket to Oman in a bid to “put the country on the map”.

It was a major challenge. Before 2012, Oman’s players were playing on astro turf and cement wickets.

So Kanak invested in a grass wicket with floodlights (at Amerat, Muscat) and there is now a second pitch being installed next door to provide yet more opportunities for development.

Pankaj believes the turf wicket was the catalyst for the rewards now being reaped.

“Every time we went to play a WCL tournament we always got done in because we hadn’t played on a big seaming or spinning wicket,” Pankaj explained to Sport360, reflecting on more challenging times.

“The boys found it difficult to adjust a matter of days before the tournament so we tried to see if we could get a square.

“My father invested in a green square at our farm. That really contributed because the main national team would come and practice and get some real feel for what the wickets were like.”

Since gaining Associate Nation status in 2014 there has been funding from the ICC and ACC, the former arranging lodgings and travel during the World T20 – but the large majority of investment in Oman cricket is from the Khimjis.

OMANTEL sponsor the time while BDM provide equipment and the Ministry of Sports donated land to build Oman’s first cricket ground. All of the steps though have been initiated, and supplemented, by the Khimjis.

What it has left is the perfect foundations for Oman to first reach, then impress at, a world tournament.

“We invested in getting the right ingredients and left the rest for the boys to do and I think they latched on to every opportunity they have got which is fantastic,” Pankaj said.

“It’s very difficult to qualify our investment or give a figure. Invariably it was the family that sponsored flights to the Asia Cup, team kit and so on – hoping that one day we would get there.

“We don’t have to invest as much now as we have sponsors and are looking to bring more people on board. We can’t have it better, we’re very proud. It’s a passion. We want cricket to infiltrate the Omani schools and we want to make sure we realise that.

“Twenty five years ago we set about making the rule that every team in the league must have at least one Omani player and they must bat at least at number five.

“If you didn’t have that one Omani player you played with 10 players.”

It may appear rather primitive compared to the standards of more ‘cricket rich’ countries but with 92 teams registered with the Oman Cricket Board and 50-over leagues from Premier to A-J Divisions – participation rates are high for a Gulf nation.

And on the back of the national team’s success in India there is no better time for further investment, with the added exposure of a World T20 noteworthy in taking the game to even more Omanis.

“At grassroots level we have an Under-19, Under-16 and Under-13 schoolboys’ tournament,” said team manager Zaidi, who played university cricket alongside Rameez Raja and Asad Rouf and has been associated with Oman cricket since 1980.

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“Besides this, we have a girls’ cricket league of inter-school level and a national women’s team captained by Ms Vaishali Jesrani.”

Other than the Khimjis, few have been as intrinsically involved with Oman cricket as Karachi-born Zaidi, who combines a role as confidant to the players with work as a senior selector and advisor – as well as being team manager. That role now includes scouting players, arranging team logistics, aiding selection and organising team schedules.

Zaidi’s greatest asset, however, is his understanding of Oman cricket and a close relationship with the players that is somewhere between paternal and elder sibling.

As for the Khimjis, their dedication to the sport goes beyond simply bankrolling a sporting ‘plaything’.

Their interest and investment into the game is far reaching and there is no question that the significant investment is now paying serious dividends for cricket in Oman.

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