A decade ago Oman didn't have a single grass cricket field. Today, there are two, next to each other, in Al Amerat, a short drive from the capital, Muscat. These two venues will put Oman on the cricket map when it hosts six matches in the first round of the 2021 T20 World Cup. With the national team participating and looking to qualify for the Super 12s, it's widely seen as a landmark moment for cricket in the country, as Pankaj Khimji, chairman of Oman Cricket, says.
Give us a sense of how big it is for Oman to be hosting a World Cup.
How often does an Associate nation get to host a World Cup?
I'm told by Star Sports [the host broadcasters] that this might turn out to be the third-largest televised sporting event of all time, potentially reaching an audience of 3 to 3.5 billion people. Even if Oman gets a billion people watching the first six games, and showcases itself just to the Indian subcontinent, it's massive. It has never happened before, so we're over the moon. We have the full blessings and support of every authority in the country, right from the highest body to the local municipal council, saying let's put Oman on the map.
What is the mood among the cricket fraternity in Oman about the team's participation?
Two things. One, Oman is going to be seen by a global audience. Few people remember we made history by beating Ireland at the T20 World Cup last time [in 2016 in India]. Now we're probably one of the only Asian Associates to qualify for the second round of a T20 World Cup. It's no fluke.
Two, we've defined our purpose. We are here among the top 20 in the world in white-ball cricket. No one can tell us we made it to one World Cup and vanished. We're hoping to qualify for the Super 12s. The team is focused on that. If we do that, we will automatically qualify for next year's T20 World Cup in Australia too. So the motivation is high. Suddenly a whole new band of football-loving people are saying we've done an amazing thing by bringing a World Cup to Oman.
How have you managed to prepare the team in these Covid times, where match time has been elusive?
We're all amateur cricketers in Oman. We play weekend cricket. Our domestic season comprises weekend tournaments from September to April. All our boys have come back from hibernation five, six weeks ago. In this time, the trainers have got them back into shape, getting them to lose the kilos they've put on. That said, the team is in super shape.
We played a very good T20 series against Mumbai, beating them 2-1. After the series, at a dinner, Amol Muzumdar [the Mumbai coach] told me, "You guys managed to ignite the kind of fire [within the Mumbai team] even I couldn't." The T20 series loss spurred Mumbai to beat us convincingly in the one-dayers, but then we couldn't have got better practice than playing a quality side like Mumbai. When you train against a tougher opponent, you learn. Weaker opponents just help you to loosen up. A side with an average age of 22-23 against ours, whose average is 33-34. It was literally like a young team against a veteran's team. The preparation has been excellent.
The Mumbai team that toured Oman for three T20Is and three ODIs in September•Oman Cricket
Tell us about your director of cricket, Duleep Mendis, and his influence over the team.
He's been with us for ten years now. I don't think he thought he'd hang around for this long. At Oman Cricket, we count our blessings to have him shaping our team. Since qualifying for the 2016 T20 World Cup, we've moved somewhere from being ranked 40th to about 14th or 15th in white-ball cricket. What more can we ask for? He has built it step by step.
The World Cricket League (WCL) is a measure of our qualifying pathway to the 2023 ODI World Cup, and after a third of the matches, we're on top of the standings. The only thing I tell my colleagues is, let's not interfere with the cricket, let's leave that to Duleep. We're just administrators. So as long as you draw the line and let him get on with the cricket, it'll be terrific. Cricket isn't a judgmental sport like football, where you sack the manager if you lose five in a row. Losses are part and parcel of the progression. Fortunately, we've won more than we've lost [in the last five years].
Is there a feeder system in place for talent?
We have a wonderful school system here, and currently four players have come through to the national team from the Under-13s to 16s, 19s, to the main side. The Indian and Pakistani school system is very strong here, and we're trying to strengthen it further. We have a mix of home-grown players and expats. A lot more players who haven't had the opportunity to flourish back in their country may now consider Oman as a place to pursue their interest.
We rolled out our grassroots development programme in January 2020 [before Covid hit]. We adopted ten government schools, where our coaches teach boys and girls aged as young as eight-nine the basics of the game and then see if they can take it to the next level. We get them over to our main ground and allow them to train at the indoor centre, try to inculcate the fun factor. They don't get to watch much cricket at times, so we try to ensure they play as much as possible. We have a strong residential block around our main venue in Al Amerat, and we've thrown it open to the residents to come over and have their evening walks, use our lawns to exercise. We're doing what we can to see if in another ten to 15 years we can have 50% of Omanis constituting the national team.
Oman's players, most of whom have day jobs, have only recently returned to training ahead of their series against Mumbai and the World Cup•Oman Cricket
How long before you think cricket goes fully professional in Oman?
We'd rather be realistic and keep it as a semi-professional structure. All our players have nine-to-five jobs. They still find it difficult to get leave for camps and big tournaments. Some players are on a semi-hybrid contract, where they're employed by an organisation but paid for by Oman Cricket [when they're absent from work]. We'd honestly much rather be rookies pulling the carpet out from under some of the higher-ranked teams rather than regularly beating the smaller teams. You can't hope to go fully professional when you have a team largely comprising expats. That doesn't sound right.
A tournament of this magnitude calls for massive infrastructure upgrades. How have you gone about it?
Our ground [at Al Amerat] was like a glorified English countryside venue. We had a clubhouse on one side, which is one-third the size of the CCI [Cricket Club of India, in Mumbai] club house. The rest of it was full of neem and gulmohar trees, and benches of the kind you see in parks across London, where two or three people sit on each bench and enjoy a game of weekend cricket. But as World Cup hosts, we had to change that, so we first chalked out how many people we want to allow. With Covid protocols coming in, we said 3000 could be manageable. So from 200-300 we'd host on park benches, we're now ready to host 3000.
We've put up 30 air-conditioned corporate boxes and a media centre at a vantage location above the sightscreen. One commentary box isn't enough because we now have commentary in multiple languages, so we had to develop a huge area for that. I can't say we have the Lord's media box, but we've got a nice little set-up. Then we were told 1000 lux [for floodlights] is a thing of the past. If you want to televise an event on 4K HD imagery, you need a minimum of 3500 lux. Then we were told you don't use metal halide lamps anymore, we need LED lamps that you can switch on and off with a flick of a finger. So we got that done up.
One by one, everything is now in place. It's just six games, but it's the World Cup. So these are exciting times.