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Cricket World Cup: Uniting people beyond borders
July 10, 2019 | 10:44 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
 
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The 2019 Cricket World Cup began amidst much pomp and ceremony in England, the birthplace of the gentleman’s game. But while hopes of a fun tournament soared, they soon soured. The opening games had offered good entertainment, but the rainy weather threatened to play spoilsport. The pitches became so waterlogged that there was no option but to cancel several games — games which might have changed the outcome of who went through from the group stages of the tournament to the last four.

But the competition has steadily improved since then, following some explosive batting, fantastic fielding and accurate bowling that has accompanied several hair-raising, adrenaline-fuelled matches.

Ahead of the finals, we spoke to cricket lovers and officials in Oman to ask them for their thoughts on the World Cup, as well as to get their predictions for the tournament.

Irrespective of their loyalties, expat residents across Oman do gather together to watch the matches, sometimes in the comfort of their own homes, at other times, in the cafes that dot the Sultanate.





Having attended school in Oman, Siddhant Shetty has been working in the country for many years now. Siddhant said: “I mostly watch the matches in the background when I am doing something else, I don’t watch the games continuously. If I do watch, it is mostly with family. We have plenty of banter with friends because that is part of the game.”



Like many fans of the gentleman’s game, Siddhant has felt that the lack of reserve days did hamper what promised to be an entertaining start to the tournament: the rain meant several games had been washed out. Sri Lanka’s matches against both Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the India-New Zealand game, were abandoned without a single ball being bowled, while several matches were shortened because the rain threatened to play havoc.

“I would say that the first half of the World Cup was not great, but I think the game between England and Sri Lanka was the turning point of this tournament.”

“The last few matches were very exciting, and until the very end, we weren’t sure who was going to make it for the last semi-final spot,” Siddhant revealed. “My favourite match was the one between England and Sri Lanka, because Sri Lanka surprised everyone by winning. No one expected them to win, particularly against the hosts who had a very deep batting line-up. They had at least eight players who could bat.”

While the format may not have endeared itself to Siddhant, it certainly found approval with Syed Jameel. A Pakistani national who lives and works in Oman, Jameel was until very recently the manager for Oman’s national cricket team, and is currently their team coordinator, as well as a senior member of their tournament organising committee.



Syed did not hold back from criticising Pakistan’s performances during this World Cup, and he felt that with a little more courage and determination, the 1992 World Cup winners might have gotten through the 10-team group stage.

“What I liked about this World Cup, first and foremost, was the format,” he said. “Each team had an equal chance to qualify because each had nine matches to play against the others. I think this is the fairest format we have had in the World Cup so far.”

“Honestly, in the beginning, Pakistan’s performances were pathetic,” said Jameel, who did not shy away from providing an honest opinion. “In the beginning, when we lost to West Indies, I felt it was a very bad start, and I felt the end of our tournament was right there.”

Although there was uproar back in Pakistan after the national team lost to India, Jameel could relate to the players and the pressure they were under. In the wake of this defeat, local media back in Pakistan provided a willing outlet for disgruntled fans of the cricket team to openly voice their frustration.



“Whenever India play Pakistan, there is tremendous pressure on the players. When we lost, the entire nation of Pakistan was furious. Many people organised protests, and there were some interesting reactions”.

“We have had some nail-biting matches as well; it is not like all the matches have been boring. The matches that Afghanistan played with India and Pakistan were for example, great nail-biters. The West Indies also had many great fightbacks. In the beginning of the tournament, when the matches were being washed out, I honestly felt very angry because I wondered what was going on.”

Nevertheless, he does feel that the World Cup has been enjoyable.

When asked how he preferred to watch games, Jameel said: “I watch the games with my wife and son. I don’t watch games continuously, it is better if it runs in the background, but the passion for the game is always there. We have a small group open for the cricketers, and there is plenty of banter that goes on there. I am Pakistani, my friend an Indian, and so there is great fun.”

Having been a part of the Oman national team’s backroom staff for so many years now, Jameel knows more than a little bit about what it takes to handle pressure on the cricket pitch. His advice to others in his position was not to lose their cool, because players both on the pitch and in the pavilion could react to that in a negative manner.

“I am a calm person, and so is our head coach, Mr Duleep Mendis,” he said. “Tensions are there, but we keep our cool, because the team is sitting right behind us, and if they see us lose it, it will begin to affect them as well.”

We also spoke to former national team player Hemal Mehta, who had represented Oman from 2002 to 2014. Like many other overseas Indians in Oman, he too is going to be supporting the Men in Blue.

As a player himself, Hemal felt the Indians did have an excellent side, but admitted that he did have concerns over the team’s middle order when it came to batting.

Having retired from active duty for Oman’s national team, Hemal now runs a professional academy in the country so that he can share his experience with young cricketers in Oman. With children of different nationalities coming to train, there’s plenty of banter flying between them during the sessions, but Hemal and his team try their best to ensure the teasing does not cross the line.

“I run a professional academy, so we try to keep it as low-key as possible, but knowing the kids, they will be a bit vocal,” he explained. “We try not to let this boil over because behaving properly is a professional requirement, and since these kids are also sportsmen, we try to keep a low profile.”

Hemal added: “We have a healthy discussion as to how these players performed on the cricket turf, not how they performed for their country. Fortunately, we play the game, not just watch it, so we understand each other’s emotions and that’s what keeps things in balance. That is how we handle it.”

He also hopes that Oman will one day play in the 50-over version of the World Cup. Oman previously played at the 2016 Twenty20 Cricket World Cup, during which they recorded one of their most famous wins to date. On 9 March 2016, Oman beat the Republic of Ireland in the group stages of the tournament. Set a target of 155 by the Irish, Oman overcame their opponents with two balls to spare. Munis Ansari took three wickets for Oman that day.

“Oman has already played a World Cup – the Twenty20 World Cup in 2016, and probably by January 2021, eight teams could once again play each other in the World Cup qualifiers, now that the nation has One Day International status,” he admitted. “I think Oman has a very bright future. I would say the Oman national team is like Afghanistan’s team. They have great strength as far as bowling is concerned, but they could improve their fielding aspect.”

Hemant added: “What we lack is that we play maybe 10 matches in a year, whereas Afghanistan plays maybe 40 or 50 matches That will make a big difference. If Virat Kohli scores just one hundred in a year, for example, he will not be confident to play the next year, whichever team he plays against. If Oman play more matches a year, I think it will turn out well for them.”

While most foreign nationals in Oman are sure to support the national teams of their countries of origin, some do not. Some feel a connection to what other teams stand for, such as their spirit and camaraderie both on the pitch and off it. Ramanuj Venkatesh is one such example.

An Indian national who came to Oman when he was just a boy, Ramanuj is an ardent lover of cricket, having enjoyed playing the game with his friends when he was little, and with his colleagues when he was older. Unlike many other Indians in Oman he is cheering for New Zealand.

“With respect to why I like New Zealand, from what I have seen, even prior to this World Cup and across all tournaments both home and away, they do learn from their mistakes in previous matches and they have a rather young side,” he revealed. “They give their heart, soul and effort into whatever they do. Even when they field, they try to go all out when the ball is going for a four because they want to save the ball from reaching the boundaries.”

“Even their bowling attack is very well-disciplined, despite there being a few injuries here and there,” added Ramanuj. “The current crop of players such as Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Lockie Ferguson, do pack quite a punch.”

However, New Zealand have been the most erratic of the four semi-finalists and needed results to go in their favour before they were certain of booking their place in the last four. Ram knows the Black Caps will not have it easy when they face India but is hoping his team do raise their game for the occasion.

The Kiwis only won five of their matches, against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, South Africa and the West Indies, while they lost to England, Australia and Pakistan. Their match against India was washed out because of rain, and with no reserve days allocated for this tournament, both sides walked away with a share of the points.

While expats in the country undoubtedly do have a fondness for the game, is that a sentiment the Omanis share as well? While cricket has been screened on TVs in Oman for decades, it is still a relatively new sport when it comes to locals understanding what the game is all about.

Dad Mohammed Al Balushi is a senior board member of the Oman Cricket Association. Having been involved in the game for so many years, he is of course following the World Cup with great interest, but admits that while Omanis are curious about what’s going on, they are still unable to relate to the game.

“Omanis do know that the World Cup is going on, but only those who actually play cricket maybe for the national team will watch the games,” he explained. “If an Omani has many Indian and Pakistani colleagues, then they will watch with them and take interest in the games. Similarly, if any Indian or Pakistani batsman is in form, then they will be curious to watch these players.”

“If they see any expats watching the game, then they will approach them and ask them what is happening,” explained Dad Mohammed. “Once we tell them that they are playing the World Cup, they understand. Oman hosted the World Cup a while ago and they remember all the media reports around that time, so then they relate to it.”

In August last year, Oman hosted the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy for two days, making it the first country in the Middle East to host the coveted prize. It is an event that cricket lovers in the country fondly remember and use it as a frame of reference when trying to introduce the sport to those who are not as familiar with it.

Their curiosity aroused, Omanis are keen to ask questions of their cricket-watching counterparts, but they tend to be rather simple questions that deal with the way cricket is played, rather than any specifics about the game that is currently ongoing.

Dad Mohammed said: “These days, if they are walking in those areas that are dominated by South Asian communities, and they see people watching the game, the Omanis will ask them what it is, and they will be reminded that this is the game that the expats here often play on the street. Shops, cafeterias and hotels here do show the games, so the Omanis are naturally interested to know what this is, and they will ask questions.”

He added: “Their questions are rather simple: ‘Who is playing?’, What is this?’, ‘What is happening?’ Their questions are pretty straightforward because they find the game to be strange. Omanis don’t really know any of the players. They know that India or Pakistan or Bangladesh are playing, but unless we tell them that Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni play for India, they will not know these names.”

Although he too reckons India are favourites for the tournament, Dad Mohammed feels no team in the last four can take anything for granted.

“Now, this World Cup is very confusing,” he admitted. “Look at how far England have come. They defeated New Zealand so easily. My favourites for the tournament are New Zealand and India, but you can’t predict anything. Pakistan were unable to chase runs when they were required to, their losses against India and England were too heavy for them to handle.”

“If I am at our cricket club in Amerat, a lot of the coaching staff are there, some of the players are around as well, so we watch the games together,” added Dad Mohammed. “Otherwise, I watch at home. I don’t watch games outside otherwise. Sometimes, I will watch the first innings in the club and the second innings at home, because yes, you can miss the first innings sometimes, but I can never miss the second innings because that is the most important.”

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NOTE: At the time of writing this article, both semi-finals are yet to be played. The final of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup will be played on Sunday, July 14.

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