Pioneering the game of cricket in the Gulf

We speak to four men who came upon cricket by chance and are now fighting to get the sport more recognition in the Arab world in the face of apathy and the dominance of football.

Cricket plays an integral part in many Gulf residents’ lives. Here, a weekly match takes place behind a mosque in Oman, before the players head to work on Fridays.
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With his cholesterol levels rising alarmingly, Taher Bastaki was advised by his doctor to take up a sports. As football was too strenuous, he settled on cricket and is now spreading his love of the game through his family and friends.

Dad Mohammed al Balushi found himself on a cricket field after the friends he was accompanying for a weekend match were short of one player. He knew nothing about the game back then, but today he is a member of Oman Cricket and was the manager of their nationals team, which lost to the UAE in a thrilling Gulf Cup final on Sunday.

Nadil Yousuf knew little about the game as he watched the 1996 World Cup. He was supporting Australia in the final because they were wearing the same colours as Brazil, his favourite football side. Two years later, he was playing in the Oman league.

Khalid Masood had little time for cricket until he saw Saeed Anwar play a magnificent innings of 194 for Pakistan against India in 1997. The Omani's love for football was put aside and cricket became his new interest.

All these men got involved with cricket by some twist of fate, but are hardcore ambassadors of the sport in their communities, where the game is considered a pastime of the expatriates.

They have to fight on different fronts - the domination of cricket by the expatriates in their countries, the overwhelming presence of football in the Arab world, the lack of opportunity or recognition, and often the apathy of their boards and sports authorities.

"Who could have imagined four teams of nationals from Gulf countries would be playing cricket," Nadeem al Nadwi, the Saudi Arabia captain at the Gulf Cup, said as he watched ecstatic Emirati fans dance after UAE's final victory.

"This [Gulf Cup] tournament has really been a blessing and I hope it will grow stronger every year."

The Gulf Cup was the brainchild of Alawi Shukri, an enthusiastic Emirati cricketer who launched the tournament last year. This year the Sharjah Cricket Council organised and hosted the tournament.

"It's good for the guys," Shukri, 20, said. "We had the [Emirates Cricket] Board involved this time, so more recognition. The board has taken a good initiative and if they can continue with this, definitely we will grow."

He added: "This tournament will definitely create more awareness about cricket among the nationals, but we need to get into the schools.

"I am getting phone calls from everywhere saying 'you have a nationals team, congratulations'. So the awareness is definitely there, but for getting them into the ground, we have to go and get them."

Cricket in the UAE has struggled to make an impact among Emiratis despite a long history of international matches and the availability of some outstanding facilities.

The Sharjah Cricket Stadium has hosted 200 one-day internationals - more than any other cricket venue - since 1984; the Dubai Cricket Stadium and Abu Dhabi's Zayed Stadium have also gained international status and repute.

The country is also the home of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and their Global Academy is based at the Dubai Sports City.

Oman do not have such facilitiesbut their league structure is strong, with particular emphasis on the involvement of the nationals.

"We are trying our best," Kanaksi Gokaldas Khimji, the president of Oman Cricket, said. "Since the beginning when we started cricket in Oman more than 40 years ago, our focus has been on encouraging the nationals.

"We are playing on cement and artificial turf, but we are building our own ground and hopefully by the end of the next year, it will be ready. Once we get turf wickets, I can tell you our boys will be the best.

"I believe there is a very good chance for Oman to appear in a World Cup sometime soon."

He said every team in the league had to have a national in their line-up and if they did not they had to take to the field with 10 players.

Shukri also has high regards for the cricketing structure in Oman and believes something similar in the UAE would help the nationals.

"Oman have a got a good structure for the nationals," he said. "Oman have been there for a long time and the structure is there in place. That's the kind of structure we need here. They haven't got the facilities that we have; if they played here they would definitely be a better side. So we should use our facilities and improve."

Saudi Arabia also have a strong structure, with 149 clubs and 38 cricket grounds around the country, one of which has a turf wicket.

"The game is growing among the nationals and we have a lot of grounds now," Mahmood Qureshi, the manager of the Saudi nationals team said. "We have more than 50-plus Saudi cricketers playing regularly. Every city has its own league then we have the intercity matches as well. Saudi Arabia is a country with lots of cities, so we have inter-region matches as well. So we are really improving.

"With the Twenty20 and the World Cup, the Saudis are getting to know more and more about cricket. There are a lot of big businesses involved in cricket, a lot of money. So the people want to know what it is and that's how the awareness spreads … So cricket is as well known in Saudi Arabia as football or the other sports. There are lots of local heroes and people are really taking to the game.

"We have a lot of support from the local media as well. A lot of the newspapers follow the league matches and they are doing a wonderful job in promoting the sport. They take cricket to the masses."

The Saudi Cricket Centre (SCC), the governing body of the sport in the country, have also been working tirelessly to take the game to the nationals.

"What the SCC did was to start making academies in cities," Qureshi said. "These academies have been trying to go to the schools and colleges, telling the students what cricket is, giving them an exhibition and inviting the kids to the academies.

"We have some really good training centres. We show them videos and we show them clips of all the national cricketing heroes. We try to show them cricket is as exciting as football. So things are moving forward. It's not going to come in a day or night, it will take time, but we are moving in the right direction."

The national cricketers of Kuwait, however, have no such hope. Their board refuses to acknowledge the existence of Kuwaiti cricketers.

"We did not get any support from our board because according to them, there are no nationals playing cricket in Kuwait," Bastaki, who brought the team for the Gulf Cup without any support from his board, said. "We got sponsorship from companies, from friends. So we have come on our own.

"On this issue, I would just like to tell the Asian Cricket Council to please promote the nationals."

He added: "My dream is to one day see these Kuwaitis play an international match."

Qureshi has similar hopes for Saudi cricket. "Our dream is to become one of the big sides in the cricketing world," he said. "We want our name to be known on the global stage. We hope that will happen soon."

For Oman's al Balushi, the Gulf Cup itself is, in part, a dream come true.

"When I came home to Oman in 1984, I wrote an article in two major newspapers," he said. "I suggested a GCC tournament back then. That time it was my dream and I kept waiting until last year. Half of my dream was fulfilled because we had four nations taking part.

"When we become six, with the inclusion of Qatar and Bahrain, that is when my dream will be fulfilled. Then we will be a proper GCC tournament."

Shukri has promised to work hard to get those two countries into the fold by next year and try to attract Yemen as well.

"Bahrain are there too, they just need sponsorship," he said. "I am hoping to get Qatar and Yemen. Yemen are still unknown, but we are hoping to get them involved.

"Iraq, I don't know. Yemen itself is a huge task. Then we will see Iraq. We have to finish our goals first and then get into those countries.

"My dream is to get this tournament recognised by the ICC after that it is on its own. I hope it will not end after I am gone. It will still be there."