Saudi Arabia eye place at ‘centre of cricket in the Gulf’ after promising display in Oman

Coach Kabir Khan focused on ‘making stars’ as kingdom’s cricketers give good account of themselves in Asia Cup qualifier in Muscat

Saudi Arabia hope to make big strides in cricket and after encouraging performances in the ACC Men's Premier Cup in Oman. Photo: Subas Humagain for The National
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After Saudi Arabia’s cricketers beat Hong Kong in the ACC Premier Cup at a picturesque ground beneath the Hajjar Mountains in a suburb of Muscat on Sunday, there was no congratulatory message from Cristiano Ronaldo.

Neymar Jr was otherwise preoccupied with recuperation, as well as Al Hilal’s coming Champions League tie against Al Ain.

LIV’s golfers were probably too taken by speculation over whether Viktor Hovland or even Rory McIlroy might actually be on their way, to take notice.

And yet, just quietly, the result was a significant one for Saudi cricket. Hong Kong might be an inconsistent version of the side that once took a win off Bangladesh in a T20 World Cup. But they are still ranked 10 places above Saudi Arabia in the official ICC standings.

OK, so it was not exactly seismic, but it does represent incremental progress in Saudi Arabia’s vision to develop cricket from both outside and within.

And, according to Kabir Khan, the former Pakistan bowler who is the team’s coach, the result will have been appreciated by the right people.

“They have learnt,” Kabir said of the administrators who are overseeing the growth of the sport in the kingdom.

“Our chairman is a local prince. Our CEO is from there. They have studied cricket, so they know about the rankings, and they are supporting us fully. We have full support from the government and the [Saudi Arabian Cricket] federation.

“These matches will open their eyes to the fact the team is doing well. And when the team does well, extra support comes in.”

As yet, cricket has not had its own headline moment in Saudi Arabia of the like of Ronaldo, Neymar, et al in football, the LIV Tour in golf, or Tyson Fury prize fights in boxing.

Talk of the world’s richest cricket league being staged there, and bilateral matches between India and Pakistan, at present remains just that: talk.

Kabir thinks the arrival of “commercial cricket,” as he terms it, is just a matter of time. In the meantime, he is more closely focused on improving the country’s current stable of cricketers.

There are challenges. For instance, there are no fully-operational grass cricket fields in the country as yet. Sourcing suitable clay for wicket blocks within Saudi has not been simple, but he says there are approvals for turf grounds, which the private sector is backing.

The cricket federation have set up academies in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. Around 80 per cent of club cricket is being played in those three cities, with approximately 500 clubs, and 12,000-15,000 registered cricketers across the country.

The standard for almost all is “fun, weekend cricket,” according to Kabir, but the building blocks are being put in place for progress, he says.

“Cricket is part of it,” Kabir said of sport’s role in Saudi Vision 2030. “We want to improve our ranking, but also host leagues and big tournaments as well to bring that soft image of the country.

“That means we are playing a double type of role. We think that we could be the centre of cricket in the Gulf region because of the vast country we have, and the sponsorship being centralised.

“The people at the top know what they are doing. They are planning for leagues, planning for international matches, and within a year or two I think we will see that, as well as our own cricket developing.

“My job is to develop cricket. Leagues will come. Commercial cricket will come. It has to come, with the country and its vision.

“But parallel to that, my mission is to improve cricket, and that is going well. Giving an amateur side 16 months ... now they are beating top teams, and giving a tough time to other top teams, is a good effort.”

The ACC Premier Cup, a 10-team event which carries with it one place at the Asia Cup next year, is the highest standard of competition Saudi Arabia have yet featured in.

Despite their win against Hong Kong, they fell just short of a place in the semi-finals after losing a rain-affected game against Nepal in the decisive fixture.

The fact they pushed Nepal close was just as indicative of the strides the side have made as the win over Hong Kong. Nepal will be playing at the T20 World Cup in the United States and Caribbean this summer, and faced the might of India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup last year.

Despite the embryonic infrastructure for the sport in the country, Saudi Arabia's progress is perhaps not entirely surprising. After all, they have a coach who has a glowing and diverse CV, which includes among its entries a successful stint as UAE coach.

His broad spectrum of experience also includes leading Afghanistan to the top tier of the world game, a spell assisting Lahore Qalandars in the Pakistan Super League, as well as a stint with Pakistan’s women’s team.

He accepted an approach by the Saudis in 2021 with his eyes open. “I knew there was zero infrastructure,” he said. “There were 100 grounds, but all cement [wickets]. There was no grass, so I knew they were going to struggle on turf pitches and struggle with their fielding.

“But the numbers they had were good. They had a pool of players, and it was all about selecting them and training them.”

On the evidence of the ACC Premier Cup, his methods are still on point.

“It is a challenge for me,” Kabir, 50, said. “At my age, having done everything, you need something challenging. You can’t go with something that is already structured.

“I have been a development coach working with UAE, Afghanistan, and for all the teams I have worked with, it has been about making stars, not playing with stars.

“My job is to take teams to the top level, and make stars. I don’t want to work with readymade stars.”

He might already have a new star in his midst. Abdul Waheed, a 30-year-old fitness trainer from Riyadh, marked himself out as an opener of significant talent with a string of fine innings in Muscat.

Waheed was born and brought up in Saudi. The national teams of many Gulf countries often feature players who learnt their cricket in the subcontinent before relocating for work as adults, but the Saudi side is mostly populated by players who were brought up there.

Waheed, for example, is the son of a civil engineer who moved from Pakistan to Saudi 46 years ago. He picked up cricket via his dad and two uncles, and has only been to Pakistan twice himself.

“In my whole life I have played cricket only in Saudi Arabia, plus a couple of matches in the Qatar and Kuwait leagues,” Waheed said.

“Coming to play here [in Muscat], it does feel different for our boys. But I am using my past experience. I have made 29 international tours for Saudi Arabia.

“We also have good coaches who are working really hard with the boys. For me, it all depends on your mentality and how you play.

“If you think you are playing on cement or concrete when you are playing on turf wickets, it will be easy for anyone.”

Waheed works as a fitness trainer at Arkan Sports Academy in Riyadh, which is the first indoor cricket and multi-sports facility in Saudi.

It provides players with a more comfortable environment to hone their cricket skills than what he was afforded growing up while being coached by his uncles, Abdul Wahab and Abdul Karim.

“They were the first ones who supported me to play cricket,” he said. “Whether it was summer or any type of weather, we had to go to the ground to play cricket.

“If it was 42 degrees, 45 degrees, it didn’t matter. We had to come and play cricket. This is how I started. My uncle, Abdul Wahab was my first coach and that is how I learnt batting.”

On the evidence of Muscat, they taught him well. And, while his celebrity might not be quite that of Ronaldo, Neymar, or Salem Al Dawsari, he is proud to make a contribution to the development of sport in his country.

“Honestly, Saudi Arabia is a country which loves sports,” Waheed said.

“Ronaldo has been in Saudi Arabia, and cricket is also moving forward. As of now, we are waiting for the grounds and facilities. When that happens it will motivate other people, locals, and this is how Saudi Arabia cricket will go to the next level.

“My mission is to help bring Saudi Arabia to the next level. Still, I’m not satisfied with my performance, and I can get much better. But wins for the country are achievable for us.”

Updated: April 19, 2024, 1:10 PM