T20 World Cup: Once 'bamboozled by turf', Oman now set for centre stage

Seeing side play in a global tournament is the culmination of a life's work for Oman Cricket chairman Pankaj Khimji

The Oman Cricket Academy will soon be playing host to T20 World Cup matches. Photo: Oman Cricket
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As he surveyed the scene, a wry smile crossed Pankaj Khimji’s face.

Groundstaff hard at work rolling the pitch and tending to the outfield. Workmen riveting together the new temporary stands, while others lather cement for an extension to the scorebox.

Across the open-plan office, admin staff assess where best to place concessions stands, and order an ATM.

As the chairman of Oman Cricket, Khimji is about to see a lifetime’s ambition — and not just his, but that of his father, Kanaksi, too — come to pass. Because on Sunday, Oman will stage the opening match of a World Cup in cricket.

“I think I am going to be more worried about the game than about what happens around here,” Khimji said of the efforts to convert Oman Cricket Academy into a ground fit to welcome the world.

“By then, if we haven’t done it, it’s too late. I am now only worried about the team. I just want to go to Round 2.”

In truth, it is inaccurate to suggest hosting World Cup cricket was a dream for the family who have driven the development of the sport in Oman.

As recently as a decade ago, the very idea would have been ludicrous. There was not even one turf ground in the country back then.

“We would never have dreamed of having a green field ever,” Khimji said. “We were happy playing on a concrete surface.”

Even now, the majority of cricket in the country is played on concrete wickets, with brown dusty outfields. And yet they are about to become the first side from beyond the Test-playing elite to both host and play in a T20 World Cup.

Their hopes of advancing from a group that also includes Bangladesh, Scotland and Papua New Guinea are justified, too.

The rise of the game in Oman in recent times has been startling. “We started playing [ICC] affiliate-nation tournaments, and we would get there and lose,” Khimji said.

“We never had a coach. The team would gather about five or seven days before a tournament, do some catching practice, do some net practice.

“They would go there, then get bamboozled by the turf. They didn’t have the stamina, they dropped sitters, and would lose out on silly things.

“We started building slowly, and we said, ‘What next?’ We knew we needed a turf ground.”

At the turn of the millennium, Oman Cricket approached the country’s minister of sport with a request for space to build a ground.

They were given a 70,000 square metre plot in the small town of Al Amerat, 20 minutes outside of Muscat. At a cost of around 10,000 riyals ($26,000) they levelled the ground using a JCB and a bulldozer, manned by two drivers from Pakistan.

There were Portakabins for dressing rooms. The groundsman who first laid the square at Sharjah Cricket Stadium decades earlier was brought out of retirement and back from his home in Karachi to do similar.

Initially, a pitch was laid on the Khimji family farm in Barka, an hour up the coast from Muscat, and the leading players would train there three days a week. Then, by 2012-13, the ground in Amerat was grassed.

“If we were going to compete in global tournaments, we knew we needed at least a patch of green,” Khimji said. “The square had to be green, even if the outfield was brown.”

They have done better than merely “compete” in the time since. In 2016 they qualified for the World T20 for the first time, and beat Ireland in the opening round of that competition in India.

The former Sri Lanka international, who was the manager of his home country when they won the 50-over World Cup in 1996, has overseen steady progress in his decade developing Oman Cricket.

“I have lasted 10 years here not because of anything else, but because of the people, because of the board, and because of Pankaj,” Mendis said.

“They are very genuine people, passionate people. With this type of a board, if you are being genuine, I think you will last. I have thoroughly enjoyed my stay here. We want to do well.”

The affection Mendis feels for Khimji is universal in Oman Cricket. Despite being chairman of the board — and an employer of a number of the players — he appears to be as popular a member of the national team set up as any of the players or support staff.

The idea he is at one with everyone belies the fact he is the scion of the Khimji Ramdas business empire.

First established in 1870, the company has interests in construction, manufacturing, shipping, education, and plenty else besides.

His love of cricket stems from being sent to school in Mumbai, where he learnt the game “on the streets and in the gullies,” he said.

His new obsession survived A-levels in less-than-cricket-obsessed Switzerland, as well as university in London.

And even a six-month stint as a travelling salesman in the west of the UK, learning the ropes with Procter & Gamble — on secondment from Muscat in 1987.

“They gave me a Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6l,” Khimji said. “They said, ‘Dark suit, light shirt, tie, and never be without one’. And an overcoat.

“From January till the end of May, I did from Bristol to Penzance as a roving salesman, learning how to sell Fairy Liquid, Pampers and Ariel powder.

“It was the best five months of my life in terms of learning what is trade, what is the art of selling.

“How do you go to a Plymco — a Co-op in Plymouth — and convince a guy that liquid is a better soap than powder soap?

“And what is that ball doing on top of it? You put the liquid into that, and you throw that ball into the washing machine.

“He says, ‘Nope, go away’. It is about learning and going back to him the next day.”

When he returned to the family business in Muscat, he was armed with plenty of new ideas to get on at work — but, still, his childhood love had not left him.

“I started playing cricket over here, but wasn’t particularly good,” Khimji said. “The local Asian lads were much bigger, stronger, and could hit the ball off the concrete much harder than I could.

“I didn’t mind fielding from third man to third man, so long as I kept my Friday going.”

Fridays for aspiring cricketers in Oman look very different to what they used to thanks to Khimji’s influence.

On Sunday, it will reach a peak when Oman face PNG in the World Cup on home soil.

A peak, maybe, but not the summit. Khimji and Mendis still have plenty of ambitions. Like qualifying for the 50-over World Cup in 2023 next.

“Everything is set now,” Mendis said. “We have to do well to go forward, and they have the ability to do so.

“After five or six years, I felt the natural ability was there. For players from India and Pakistan, cricket is in their blood.

“One thing I felt was lacking was the mental side. I worked on that, and to a certain extent I think it has worked. “Sometimes at the start I felt they were very timid and crumbled easily. We have put them through a lot of exercises and they have come out of them.

“Still we are on the way because when we play against a Test side, still I feel they are not hard enough. But it will come.”

Updated: October 14, 2021, 2:59 AM