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"This is about Oman wanting to make a statement" - Oman Cricket chairman Pankaj Khimji on hosting T20 World Cup 2021

Oman cricket chief Pankaj Khimji [R] with Sourav Ganguly, Jay Shah and ICC acting CEO Geoff Allardice
Oman cricket chief Pankaj Khimji [R] with Sourav Ganguly, Jay Shah and ICC acting CEO Geoff Allardice
EXPERT COLUMNIST

Back in March 2016, when Oman chased down a 155-run target to stun Ireland in a group stage encounter at the T20 World Cup, a lot was spoken about how the former were no longer pushovers.

Cut to a little over 5 years later, Oman cricket has gone from strength to strength. A convincing 2-1 win over Mumbai in the recent T20 series, proving strong competition to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - all of this apart from the fact that the picturesque country will be hosting the Round 1 clashes of the T20 World Cup 2021.

Grouped alongside Bangladesh, Papa New Guinea and Scotland in their quest to qualify for the T20 World Cup 2021 Super 12s, there's a lot riding on the mix of youth and experience in the Oman squad.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Oman cricket chief Pankaj Khimji shed light on the challenges of hosting a global event, the country's preparations for the T20 World Cup 2021 and more.

Q. What does it mean to the country of Oman and the cricket board to host such a high-profile tournament and how have the preparations been?

When you have a country of literally four and a half million people and they put their hand up to host a cricket mega event called the T20 World Cup, we're getting into very deep waters. But at the same time, it's a great moment for the country to stand out and say we will deliver. As far as we're concerned, it's not about Oman cricket taking on a lead, this is about Oman wanting to make a statement saying that listen, we are a great destination for cricket tourism or cricket to be hosted.

From that standpoint we are extremely pleased and looking forward to hosting the world virtually and physically to the crowd that comes to the stadium. We've got a very beautiful landscape, mountains all around us. We're 360 degrees surrounded by mountains. We had some friendlies with some Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and they were very, very well received by the local enthusiasts, and I believe it had a 13.5 million audience, which is three times our population. So what more can we ask for?

Oman cricket stadium which will be used for the T20 World Cup 2021
Oman cricket stadium which will be used for the T20 World Cup 2021

Q. What sort of pitches can we expect in Oman? Coming into the T20 World Cup, there's been a lot of discussion around pitches in UAE. Can you give us an idea of how the pitches could play out in Round 1?

I have safeguarded four very nice, fresh pictures and it's up to the match referee to decide what sort of a pitch he wants to curate and dish out to the teams that are playing. We are very, very committed to making sure that the World Cup gets the best that it deserves. So you won't have an issue. You could vary the bounce and grass if you wanted to, but you will get a very good batting surface, an even surface where the ball will come onto the bat. There won't be dips and slowing down of the ball.

Q. What are some of the challenges you have had to face in the process of preparing the infrastructure and in general Oman to host the T20 World Cup 2021?

Prior to this World Cup, would an associate nation ever dream of hosting a World Cup? It would never even dream of it. So we weren't prepared in any circumstances or in the wildest of our imaginations to prepare a public aspect of hosting thousands of people on this ground. The ground was built to really facilitate cricket, not just the public aspect of it.

Now with the World Cup coming here, you need to have a minimum crowd, you want some noise and action not just on the field but also beyond the boundary line. We have a couple of stands and you can see the mountains, so it's very picturesque. We've had to put up a stand with corporate boxes and a media center.

It's not your Lord's media center or the one at Motera, but ours is equally impressive and we're getting there. We put this whole thing up in 90 days. It was on 17th of July when we had the BCCI top brass come over here and said, "okay you're on", and 17th of October, we are hosting it. We had 90 days to deliver and we delivered. We have a very, very good team, and it was all local as far as possible.

Most importantly and the biggest change for us were the lights. Our light's lux levels were at 1000, and the new regulations by the ICC state that we've got to be at a minimum of 2500 with the kind of advancement in cameras and digital television.

So that was our biggest investment in infrastructure, apart from rebuilding the media center and production area. Now, you're not talking about 15-20 cameras, you have 30-plus cameras. It's the game has changed in many ways. It's more of a game which is digitally marketed rather than than physically marketing.

Q. Oman played Mumbai, and then played against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. How is the cricket developing in the country, and what are some of the learnings picked up from the recent series?

We are a very amateur country when it comes to cricket. All my cricketers are paid employees. Their main income comes from their employment, not from cricket. Only now are they getting rewards for the kind of cricket they're playing and the level of cricket they've gotten to.

Even that is only those 11, 12 or 15 people, not everyone who plays cricket in Oman. When you have an amateur kind of a cricket facility and a domestic league played on the weekends, if you put your players on the platform of the world stage and ask them to fight these guys on the same level, it's like you're picking up someone from the village and asking them to play the Olympics. I know India has done that with the wrestlers and boxers and and the hockey team that you've come up with, some great stories are there. It's a similar story over here.

So these are very enthusiastic cricketers who have played for their villages, and towns and they have a job over here. They play weekend cricket, and then we groom, nourish and polish them at the edges that has really enabled them into a playing a grade of good cricket.

My aim is to make sure that we remain on the fringe of making it to the top 12 or 13 and and I remain within the top 20. The current cricketers we have in the team are non-residents who have who have the love for the game, and we as a country have made sure that they get the opportunity with the right pair of backup and resources.

If you've got a Duleep Mendis to help them and someone like Avishkar Salvi to teach them, the players are on top of the world at the moment. We played Sri Lanka and a Bangladesh XI with the top nine Bangladesh players in it, this is what dreams are made of. We're trying here not to create dreams, but we're trying to facilitate a particular aspect of an expatriate's life.

As for grassroots development, we had a plan in place but unfortunately, Covid has put a dampener on it right now. So hopefully, we will relaunch it at the start of the season once the World Cup is done. We will probably have a season that will start towards the beginning of November, you know, without those 15 more players because we are very bullish about going to UAE for the second round.

We want to bring in cricket at the government and private school levels. We've put up a large team of experienced and qualified coaches to make this happen. Grassroots cricket is a very important facet of what we want to do in terms of our vision, and I am hoping that in the next 10-15 years, at least 50% of the Oman team should be consisting of nationals.

The Oman team picked up a memorable win against Hong Kong to make the T20 WC [PC: T20WC]
The Oman team picked up a memorable win against Hong Kong to make the T20 WC [PC: T20WC]

Q. How's the atmosphere within the team? The Oman side has quite a good mix of senior players and some exciting youngsters, and is making the Super 12s a realistic targets for this T20 World Cup?

I just hope that the team is taking it one game at a time. We know where we stand. In the ODI rankings, we're 15th. We haven't played too much T20 cricket, and we're in the Top 20 in the T20I rankings, so I think we are extremely capable of doing it.

I hope we are not too overconfident of trying to make it through there, but we will take it one game at a time. We will make sure that it's not just that we should beat Papa New Guinea and Scotland, we have to do well in all games. We played Bangladesh very well, you know, had our top 4 fired, we would have given them a tough fight. It would have been a very close call, but I think my boys star have a very, very good chance. The Oman team has as a lot to deliver, and I think they will deliver this time.

Q. Cricket is generally ruled by 3-4 big boards. Is the hosting of the T20 World Cup a bid to let BCCI, EBC, CA etc know that Oman is ready to host some high-profile cricket?

I think that statement has already been made. If you just go back five days, we had 6-7 of the main contesting countries in the T20 World Cup in Oman. They were here because they were given the sort of welcome that they deserve. Two, Oman is a great place to come and play cricket because of the fantastic infrastructure here.

We've got two very beautiful grounds, which were both T20 and ODI accredited and now even Test cricket accredited. We've got the facility and the infrastructure. It's just a matter of time and I think you know, there's so much cricket happening around the world, but not everybody plays cricket all year round, there are off-seasons and on-seasons. Most countries have pre-season training or a pre-season tour and I'm hoping Oman will be noticed by now.

Mumbai came over here for their pre-season training of two weeks and they loved it. They never expected that we would give them such a fair tour, they probably thought it would be more an R&R kind of a trip and the season opener would be a loosener, but they had to work really hard.

We're also in the midst of our ODI World Cup qualification for 2023 and amongst the seven countries that are participating, you know, three qualify automatically if they top. Oman is right now heading those charts. We are again extremely conscious also of the fact that we are trying to qualify from the ODI World Cup point of view and and also hoping that will go to Dubai, and we also qualify for the T20 World Cup in Australia next year. If we can play our cards right, the boys can perform upto their potential.

The Oman cricket team
The Oman cricket team

Q. How realistic is it to envision Oman playing cricket against the big countries in the near future, given the gulf of difference in competition otherwise?

I'm not sure whether we can play against England or Australia, or India. I think what we can do is to start one step at a time. We've got Bombay down. Mumbai is as good as any other Test country other than India. The Mumbai team has 45 wins out of 70-odd Ranji Trophies played, you know the team that came over here was as good as anything we've ever played whether it's an ODI or WCL associate nation it doesn't get better than that.

I think the Bangladesh team we played was a super side. Sri Lanka is shaping up very well with Micky Arthur now there and so on. From that standpoint, it's more about, is Afghanistan going to consider Oman as a venue for their future games?

They've been playing in UAE and India all along but they are very keen that we shared a talk where they asked if Oman can be used to play their Test fixtures. So we got them Test accredition. And now it's about time that they will consider, they have got a few Tests that they have to pay in the World Test Championship cycle, and I can't think of a better place than Oman to host them. We will be in dialogue with them, offering them our services and our facilities.

I hope Bangladesh will come and play with us when they have their monsoons in India and Bangladesh, Oman will always be available. I know it's going to be peak summer over here, but nowadays cricket is played under lights.

Evening temperatures are quite comfortable and I'm sure we can offer them some facilities over here. So maybe not England, but having said that, the England team is right now in Oman during their quarantine and limbering up for the T20 World Cup.


Edited by Prasen Moudgal

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