The exuberance, resilience and brotherhood of Oman cricket
Oman, once a cricketing backwater, is on the front pages of newspapers back home and the back pages all around the world, after an astonishing rise that culminated with victory over Ireland
10 March 2016 15:06
In Dharamsala on Wednesday, Oman made history by defeating Ireland in its first-ever match in a global ICC event. The Group A match win was undoubtedly a triumph, but it also marked the culmination of multiple factors that have contributed to Oman’s rapid rise. The reasons are aplenty, but the biggest one is the craze for cricket among expatriate Indians and Pakistanis.
The expats, who for various reasons couldn’t make it big in their respective countries, continue playing to keep their cricketing appetites filled, and in the process, have helped develop the sport in Oman.
Much about Oman cricket – the association, sponsors and players – is driven by joint Indo-Pak ventures. The team composition is evidence – five of the 15 players in the current squad have Indian origins while nine have roots in Pakistan. They listen to Bollywood songs, gather regularly for dinners during the off-season. Aamer Ali and Aamir Kaleem, who hail from Pakistan, work at an Indian restaurant named Passage to India.
“Oman cricket is like a family,” Jameel Zaidi, Oman’s team manager told Wisden India. Zaidi himself has his roots in Pakistan but has a longstanding association with Oman since 1980 – first as the captain, then as a technical advisor, a selection committee head for six years, and now, as the manager.
“In one home, there are different people na? Everyone has a different thought. Someone might like England, some might like Pakistan and so on. For us, it is like that. We are together.”
“Of course, when an India-Pakistan match is there, I'm a Pakistani, I'll go for (support) Pakistan,” laughs Zaidi. “Someone like a Jatinder Singh is an Indian, he'll go for India. That is always there. But it's like a family. It's not just during tours, we meet every week as we play together in league cricket. It has always been like that, it's great fun, and we’re always joking. We play against each other on the ground too. On the ground, I'm an enemy to you. But once the match is over, we're family.”
Cricket in Oman is still a work in progress. Oman Cricket was established in 1979 but for over three decades, there wasn’t a single turf wicket in the country. There were not many grounds either.
What the country does have though is a unique collaboration between private companies and Oman Cricket.
Many companies – ranging from banks, shipping logistics to construction brands – have strong cricket teams in Oman’s domestic league. Some corporates run academies, while many conduct tournaments. They release players from their official duties whenever they’re needed for cricketing duties, fund their training and cooperate with Oman Cricket in every possible way. Oman Cricket is the umbrella under which private companies organise tournaments.
In Zaidi’s words, nothing would have happened in Oman cricket without the support of the corporates. He also gives a sneak-peek into the difficulties faced by the cricketers, who have to juggle work, family and cricket, a familiar tussle by most Associate nations.
All this, in an average temperature of around 50 degrees.
“The cricket season in Oman starts from September onwards because the temperature is 50-something before that,” begins Zaidi. “In September, it comes down to 40 (degrees celsius).”
Comes down to 40?
“Yes, comes down! The average is 55… I can't even describe it. The last year before we played the World T20 Qualifier, the boys practised in temperatures of above 50. And then in Ireland, the temperature was 8 or 10!
Most of these big organisations are run by Indians and Pakistanis. So ultimately the India-Pakistan cricket gene is there. The best part of it is that all the departments and companies that have players in the premier division, they all support Oman cricket.
“They release players as and when we require. From morning 5 am to 8 am we have physical sessions. They then go to their offices. Then they come back at 2:30 pm for their skill training. That's the best cooperation these companies have given us. If they hadn’t cooperated, nothing would have happened in Oman cricket.”
The corporates did help cricket thrive in Oman, but for the country to take the bigger steps, it needed external support and recognition. Both came post 2000, when the International Cricket Council made Oman an Affiliate member.
The Asian Cricket Council also played a big part in Oman’s rise, providing infrastructure and support.
“Oman was the only country who (only) had experience on cement tracks and went on to play international cricket,” says Zaidi, the pride evident in his voice. “We went to South Africa for the ODI World Cup qualifier. Sandeep Patil was the coach then, we had Roger Binny after that. A lot of big coaches came then, and it was all through the help of ACC. They have done a wonderful job in promoting cricket in the region. Afghanistan, Hong Kong, UAE, Nepal...all these sides became big because of ACC. They have really done a wonderful job in (organising) coaching, umpiring, medical and physical training courses.”
Things gradually started falling in place. There are now 93 registered teams grouped into divisions A to J, and it isn’t just the expats who feature in them. According to Zaidi, seven teams have been dedicated to indigenous cricketers, and there are around 400 of them playing in the leagues.
Oman also got its first turf wicket three years back at the Ministry of Sports complex in Al Amerat, near Muscat. Another ground, with a clubhouse, is on its way. The interest in the sport has also been passed on to the next generation and Oman is increasingly tapping into the roots – school cricket.
“Now the full infrastructure is in place,” says Zaidi. “We're going to have a clubhouse with 16 pitches - 10 turf, four astroturf and two cement. It's a big thing for Oman cricket. Once this clubhouse is in, we're going to have an official academy with top coaches and everything else.”
Based on the evidence of watching them in the ICC World T20 2016, everything about the Oman team pure, unadulterated fun. On the field, the cricketers play with freedom and express themselves without reservations – perhaps a consequence of not being used to playing in front of large television audiences.
They not only Mankad batsmen, they also question the vague use of ‘Spirit of Cricket’ surrounding the dismissal.
Their press interactions are rare gems in international cricket. While many of the established teams and players shell out platitudes, Oman’s players aren’t afraid, or shy, of speaking their hearts out. Journalists enjoy Oman’s press conferences for the sheer spirit and accompanying laughter.
· “He’s basically the Chris Gayle of our side.” – The team manager, when Aamer was trying hard to explain his innings against Ireland.
· “Bahut gussa aaya tha yaar (I got really angry)“ – Aamer, when asked what he made of a stunning save by Gary Wilson that denied him a six in the closing stages of the match against Ireland.
· “Picture abhi baaki hai boss, you’re yet to see three more spinners” – Sultan Ahmed, the Oman captain, on the unorthodoxy in bowling actions.
· “There’s a long way to go. But all are excited and happy. Maybe there will be an announcement later.” – Sultan Ahmed, when asked if he expected Oman Cricket to announce bonuses for the players.
Many of them have their own stories about their glory days earlier in their careers that they share without inhibition. Ajay Lalcheta, who played age-group cricket for Saurashtra for eight years, proudly recalls the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara.
“Ravindra and Pujara were my juniors basically,” he says. “When I was playing Under-16 and Under-19, they would be in our junior team and they would come and watch us play. The situation was like that then. I was the vice-captain for Saurashtra for three years.
“I met Jadeja in Dhaka recently (Asia Cup). We're still good friends and talk about cricket a little bit. He was busy with his team and I was busy with mine.”
Zaidi himself has stories - ranging from playing under Javed Miandad to facing Imran Khan to opening with Asad Rauf - from his playing days in Karachi.
“One thing is for sure, I was a very good batsman,” he recalls. “I played for Karachi Under-19, where Javed Miandad was my captain. I used to open with Asad Rauf for two years, he was also a very daring batsman. We played Imran Khan at his peak. Imran at that time was a ‘terror’ bowler. I scored 38 not out against his side once, Rauf also scored 30. When I got out, Imran came and said - 'well played yaar, bahut khadoos player ho tum.”
“I remember, when I first landed in Oman, there was a match in the morning and we went to the ground. I scored 80 against the best team then - a Sri Lankan side. There was a bowler named Ranganathan who was supposedly a horror in Muscat. But we came from Karachi and we had played on cement tracks, so we hit him around. He had a big reputation, but we were like – ‘Arey yaar, ye utna accha bowler nahi hai!’
Until the match against Ireland, Oman’s most famous performance was in the World T20 Qualifier in Ireland and Scotland last year. It started the tournament ranked 29th, but stunned many to seal a berth to India.
“It was a historic welcome at the Muscat airport,” recalls Zaidi. “All the ministry officials were there to welcome us. The celebrations were a dream. So many people...
“I remember the police were so angry by the end of it all. Because their game is football, they never knew that cricket is that popular. The celebration went on for more than one hour and finally, one major came and told me - 'within 10 minutes, if you don't go from here, we're going to take you off!' But they have rules and regulations na? Hamaara India-Pakistan ki tara nahi hai (laughs).”
All of this indicates another – or perhaps the most – important factor for a sport’s growth in a country: supporters.
“We have a big fan following now,” says Zaidi. “If you go through Oman newspapers, everyday there are stories and pictures of the cricket team. You can see newspapers in Oman. Most of them have front pages filled with our stories. Front pages!
“For us, every step is a dream come true. We never thought that Oman will come to Dharamsala, go to Ireland... these were all dreams. With this World Cup, I'm sure things will go forward. The expectations are there now. People will be watching on television. They will see their players in the media and feel even they have to play for Oman and represent their country.”
Yes, “their country”. Oman may be their adopted homeland, but there is no doubting where their allegiances now lie.
“For me, it's my second home,” insists Zaidi. “Staying somewhere for more than 30 years... naturally you'll have an association. That is the top feeling and it's above everything else. Oman recognised us and we're now playing for Oman.
“A few players have also been born here, and have grown up here. We have been recognised, and we're here because of Oman. Everybody is proud that cricket is the only sport that has gone up to the level of a World Cup. No other sport has managed that.
“Ultimately for us, Oman is our home.”