Oman's rise to relevance and Arab acceptance of the English game

On the barren lands of Arabia, under the merciless sun, the game of bat and ball is steadily gaining ground

The recently concluded World Cricket League Division 5 tournament reaped favourable results yet again for Oman. The World Cricket League, for Oman and all Associate Nations, is the pathway into the ICC’s four-day Intercontinental Cup competition and, thereafter, Test cricket, further widening the prospects for these teams in future competitions. Oman came into the tournament as top-seed, having surpassed all expectations at the ICC World Twenty20 World Cup in India, it remained unbeaten through the Division 5 tournament, until the final when they lost the title to Jersey in a 44-run victory for the hosts. Oman’s players were consistent through the tournament, and led the run-scorer, Zeeshan Maqsood, and wicket-taker, Rajeshkumar Ranpura, lists. More importantly, Oman succeeded in gaining promotion to Division 4, taking another positive step towards qualification for the next World Cup.

On the barren lands of Arabia, under the merciless sun, the game of bat and ball is steadily gaining ground. Although the nets have to wait until 5 pm, because that is the time when most players get free from their day-jobs, the game is played with immense energy and freedom, mainly by expatriates from the subcontinent. Kudos to Oman's meteoric rise in international cricket that has taken the world by surprise and pinned another name on a long list of budding cricketing nations, the Middle East is slowly beginning to accept the emotions that link the immigrants to the local community. Oman's rise provides blueprint for the promotion and success of cricket in the Arabian peninsula.

The Middle East, quite visibly, has blindly placed its faith in football. With the vision of a transformed Arab world and competition for privileged status in the international community, the influx of Middle Eastern investors in European football clubs has sky-rocketed in the past decade along with the rapid development of commercial leagues such as the Saudi Professional League and Qatar Stars League. While football caters to the Arabian elite, cricket is the heartbeat of the masses. Cricket in the Middle East represents an escape from monotonous routines and mundane office work, signalling a moment of elation that some are able to take up to the next level, while for some it remains a weekend getaway. The seriousness may vary, but the passion, however, is constant.

Oman's success came as a gratifying moment for all cricket enthusiasts and patrons who have tirelessly given their all to grow the game from the grassroots level for the past 40 years. It symbolises progression and a small step in the process of possibly hosting full fledged international cricket in the region.

Along with Oman, two other nations that have experienced a surge in cricketing developments in the past decade are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates could be deemed as the pioneers of cricket in the Gulf. UAE registered their first One-Day International victory during the 1996 World Cup, marking the beginning of an uphill task for the Emirati: sustaining and improving their game in the years to come. Twenty years later, UAE has established itself as one of the leading Associate Nations. Having roped in stars in the form of Aaqib Javed and Mudassar Nazar, a clear message was sent out to the cricketing world that the Gulf state is indeed serious about the development of cricket in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the contrary, is relatively new to the scene, but could be aided strongly by the league set-up that it is trying to promote in the country. 11 city cricket associations build up the Saudi Cricket Center. Out of the 11 city associations, Jeddah, Medinah and Riyadh, are the central breeding grounds for budding cricketers in the kingdom and are assisted by a strong financial set-up that helps greatly in successfully conducting commercial leagues at a local level.

Pakistan and the Pakistani community residing in the Middle East remains a permanent promoter of cricket in the region. Since the unfortunate ban on international cricket in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates has been the adopted home for Pakistan’s international cricketers. While adding international cricket to the UAE’s bursting roster of international sporting events may have been considered a risky proposition, a large proportion of UAE’s population, made up of almost 1.8 million cricket-loving Indians and 1.3 million passionate Pakistanis, showed their faith and support in the decision by turning out in large numbers every time international cricket came to the Gulf state.

With corporate hospitality areas and VIP boxes almost full, it has been a massive success for the corporate clientele because not only does it represent great value in comparison with other sporting events in the region, but also ticks all the boxes when it comes to entertainment. The excess demand and untapped potential that surrounds the region led to inquiries regarding the availability of grounds for commercial leagues, ultimately leading to the introductions of both the Pakistan Super League and Masters Champions League in the region. Both leagues succeeded in attracting large crowds and indicated a boom in the demand for cricket in the Middle East.

The energy has begun spreading to neighbouring countries Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Kuwait, a nation that fields a team at all age-group levels, has the luxury of a stabilised administration, plenty of domestic commercial support, state-of-the-art facilities and a true hunger to become a vibrant member of the international cricketing community, has plenty of things going for it. Qatar and Bahrain too are beginning to realise the importance of cricket as a unifying force between the expat and local community. A commercial league, Qatari Premier League, replicating the Indian Premier League is being planned by Qatar to encourage growth of the game in Doha and nearby regions. The financial set-up in Qatar is strong enough to lure in professional players from overseas with a genuine scope for bigger and better tournaments.

While the cricketing revolution continues to appeal to large numbers of people and the International Cricket Council aiming for globalisation of the game, the Middle East is, quite literally, an oil field waiting to be explored. In order to fulfil the untapped potential that the region possesses, there is a clear need for transformation of part-time cricketers into professionals. That would require the governing bodies to provide these players with central contracts, cricketing facilities and a competitive environment where they can do what they love without worrying much about making ends meet. Moreover, these nations can not rely solely on the expat community and need to ensure greater access participation by the national community. All this can be achieved by creating links between club and school cricket, establishment of junior sections within well-established clubs, improving existing facilities and providing public pitches and practice facilities to anyone and everyone willing to purse cricket as a serious career option.

Mustafa Qureshi has worked as a reporter for the Web Sports Desk at The Nation

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