For much of December and January, a sleepy Pankaj Khimji slumbered out of bed at 3:30 a.m., battled sleep deprivation, and sauntered almost robotically to the television. But the painstaking routine was well worth it for this tragic cricket tied to the nerve-racking Australia-India Test series that took place many miles away.
Cricket is in the blood, Khimji, the longtime director of Oman Cricket (OC), told me.
It sure does. Khimji’s father, Kanaksi, has been referred to locally as “the godfather of cricket” as he was the driving force behind the formal establishment of OC in 1979 with the support of the royal family of Oman.
Cricket is my father’s pure passion, Khimji said of his 84-year-old father who is still OC chairman. He traveled the world to watch cricket and it became a whole family affair.
We watched India and England from the stands at Lords all five days. We don’t budge all the time.
Clearly, in the prosperous Middle Eastern country, cricket is in good hands with the influential and wealthy Khimji family. Kanaksis grandfather Ramdas Thackersey came to Oman from India 150 years ago to trade grain, tea and spices in the bustling port of Muscat.
The family business thrived and today the Khimji Ramdas Group of Companies is a large conglomerate with strong links to the UAE and India. The Khimji family’s net worth is estimated at nearly $ 1 billion and it has invested a lot of money in the Commonwealth bat and ball sport.
Even though it has a population of just over four million, Oman has a passionate cricket scene fed by a large number of South Asian expats. About half a million Indians live and work in the Sultanate.
This talent pool has made Oman an Associates force and consistently ranked in the top 20 in ODI and T20I cricket. All of our players are amateur, they have 9-5 courses, Khimji said. We give them an allowance, an allowance. But cricket cannot be their only livelihood.
Local cricket administrators are wary of measuring success based solely on expat-driven national success, pointing out the importance of developing the grassroots. Quotas in the local leagues require teams to have at least one Oman-born batsman in the top five, while there has been a concerted effort to push cricket into schools.
Left-field proposals have started, including talented teenagers who receive their education subsidized through an agreement between AAC and a local university. We are very internally focused, which is our number one priority, Khimji said. We would love to see three or four local players on the national team in ten years time.
With its deep pockets and proximity to the subcontinent, Oman is emerging as a tempting destination for international cricket, just as UAE neighbors have been for decades. Nestled on a plateau with mountains in the background, the Oman Cricket Academy grounds in Al Amerat, 15 km southeast of Muscat, are aesthetically easier on the eye than the soulless setting of cricket stadiums dotted around the Emirates.
Granted Test status last month, Oman was about to host Zimbabwes’ upcoming tour of Afghanistan. With security concerns at home, Afghanistan is based in Northern India and the UAE, but in these uncertain times, we’ve looked at alternative options.
Oman eventually lost to the UAE to host that tour, but has ended up in the pecking order for Malaysia and Qatar to be Afghanistan’s home base, according to sources.
We are more than happy to host someone. Any associated country would dream of that, Khimji said. Visiting cricket players love to play here.
We had a lucky donation from His Majesty to build cricket infrastructure. We want to promote Oman as a destination.
The meteoric rise of Oman, which became an Associates nation in 2014, meant more gravitas for Khimji, who is becoming a prominent figure in world cricket. He narrowly missed being elected to the board of the International Cricket Councils (ICC) after falling short of the Associate Member Directors match by just one vote last month.
According to sources, he led an aggressive campaign and is considered the front runner for the vacant Chief Executives Committee (CEC) after Neil Speight was elected to the board.
Khimji was non-committal to run for the prestigious CEC, but believed he had important lessons to teach. Oman is elevated in the global cricket scene, we have done something right so I want to share our challenges, achievements and best practices with others, he said.
I want to create a path for the Associates to be recognized and increase cricket worldwide. Get the big boys to notice.
After such a tumultuous election of ICC board chairmen, underscoring the deep divisions between cricket managers, Khimji said a simple philosophy kept OC running smoothly. We leave the cricket to the cricketers and administrators must give them the resources to run it. This is the perfect formula, he said. Things can often get confused and they get into each other’s business.
Our board members receive no extras, no travel allowance. It runs on pure dedication and we just want to see Oman cricket develop.
The ride is clearly visible in Khimji, who not only likes to watch cricket in the early hours, but is also in the middle of the action.
I’ve played the game all my life and still play a game now and then, he said. It’s all about passion and that’s what drives us in Oman.
It has been a great journey.
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