09 August 2015
Duleep Mendis, the guiding hand behind Oman’s success story
Stunning Netherlands and Afghanistan to qualify for the World T20 is only the first step for the national team
Rajeshkumar Ranpura of Oman celebrates a wicket with teammates.
Déjà vu? Yes, of course – most certainly, says Duleep Mendis. And why not? Three decades on, give or take a few years, Mendis is back trying to get a cricket team to take strong baby steps, trying to put it on the road to bigger and better things. Back then it was as a player and captain for Sri Lanka, his country. Now, it’s the Oman team, of which he is the coach, or, to be more precise, a friend, a father and more.
Oman recently stunned all observers by beating the Netherlands and Afghanistan, and then Namibia, to qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 2016. The cricketers did the job on the field, but they seemed more intent on giving Mendis the credit. After all, like Derek Pringle, the team’s technical adviser says, “They want to play for him”.
Burly and wristy, Mendis was an integral part of the Sri Lankan side as it made its foray into top-drawer cricket in the 1980s, playing 24 Tests – 19 of them as captain – and averaging 31.64 with four centuries.
He has donned many hats since then, but it’s this latest one that’s the most exciting at the moment.
“It was a daunting task,” he says about the time, a year and a half ago, when he was signed on as the chief development officer of cricket in Oman as well as coach of the national team.
And he will tell you how daunting it was: “I had to see what the grassroot level was and also look for the development in schools and, of course, the A team and the national team. We were playing at a lower division and we had to improve our skills. We had to strengthen the boys mentally too. I had to start the physical training because the fitness levels were very low. They were playing very good cricket but not many people knew the importance of physical training.”
What helped Mendis then, giving him the strength to carry on, and continues to make his decision to stay on in Oman easy, is the attitude of the men who run the game there. “I think that is what gave me all the encouragement, because the board of directors are very passionate about the game of cricket,” he says. “There were different things, which we wanted at different times, and they were very accommodating. They will go to any length to see that cricket in Oman flourishes.
“At one stage, I wanted a national youth development team and that was done. They were fully sponsored. Then I wanted an age-category team of around 20 years because that was the base I wanted – everything was given to them. Then I wanted central contracts to be given to the players, to the national team, and that was given. Then, there were a few tours that we wanted as well.
“For instance, before we went to Ireland and Scotland (for the World T20 qualifiers), I wanted the team to go to Dubai for training for about two weeks on English type of wickets. Then I wanted the team to go to Ireland three weeks before the tournament started, and that happened too. We did the conditioning, acclimatising, the training, and everything else in a place called Cork in southern Ireland. So whenever we wanted something, they were always willing to give it to me.”
Despite all of that, the encouragement and the facilities and the finances, surely no one expected Oman to do as well as it did. “It really, very frankly, exceeded my expectations because to beat Netherlands and Afghanistan, and then the all-important game against Namibia, they definitely exceeded expectations,” says Mendis, adding that having Pringle around to help with the local conditions was “very helpful”.
Stepping back in time, when Mendis was playing for and captaining the Sri Lankan team, the game was very different, but the mindset and targets of a side in its infancy were quite similar. You must feel you have gone back 30 years, we tell Mendis, and he agrees: “Well, about 30 years back, we had to work in offices and then come and play cricket in the evening. It is very similar in Oman right now. Fortunately, when we sent letters to the companies, they granted leave. And it is very similar to what Sri Lanka was doing at the time.
“The majority of the players are expats but we have a few Omanis as well and we are trying to encourage more Omanis to play cricket. As you know, football is the No. 1 sport in this part of the world and we are trying to introduce cricket to the Omani schools so that they get more encouraged. The performance (at the qualifiers) has created a lot of interest.
“Yes, about 30-40 years back,” he goes on with a laugh. “That’s right, because I have seen all this happening before. And I know that the standard of cricket is quite huge here because, as I said earlier, there are a few passionate cricket followers and passionate cricket promoters in the cricket board. And now I can see their faces and how happy they are because it is something special for Oman and it has never happened before, so all the encouragement will start flowing in now.”
As the encouragement increases, so must surely the expectations – people there might well feel that beating Afghanistan is child’s play, and bigger things are just around the corner. “I think the real work starts now, because I have seen this happening in Sri Lanka,” points out Mendis. “I know exactly what kind of road lies ahead. It is a very hard and strenuous one. I think there should be so much of planning and strategy (that) must be put in and it is going to be a very challenging task. We need to have our bench strength, we need put so many little things right and the tournament we have, 50-over tournament that we have in Oman, and Twenty20 also, we do have, so the timing of the tournaments has to come right.
“The team has to be trained from here because we need a lot of competition before we go to the World Cup in 2016. For that, we need to play stronger opponents. We need to have that; it is going to be a huge task, getting other teams from other countries to play with us because most of the teams are engaged already. So we need to find, especially in the subcontinent, where we can train and play so that the level is kept high. Not that we want to beat sides – we want to get beaten and then learn lessons and then go forward.”
Just how involved Mendis is with the Oman cause is easy to gauge when he struggles to answer questions about Sri Lankan cricket – “frankly, I have been too busy here”. The World T20 qualifiers ran for most of July, and that was when Pakistan were beating Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. Next up for the team he once captained is India, but Mendis has just not been able to keep an eye out.
Of course, saying that the Sri Lankans would struggle to cope with life after Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara isn’t tough – you don’t need to follow the game much to know that: “I think the vacuum created by Mahela and Sanga is enormous because to fill that gap, it will take a long time. All the other countries have gone through this too. They will go through a period like that and they will go through some bad times. You have to bear it and then see the results.”
For now, though, Mendis is more focussed on Oman’s results, and he isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. “I’m going to be here for some time. As long as they want me, I’ll be here and as long as I’m interested in cricket in Oman. When my motivation is not there anymore, then I will call it quits.”