Oman ready to savour 'one in a million' opportunity as host of cricket's T20 World Cup
Think of cricket-playing nations and the likes of India, Australia and England might come to mind. Not so much Oman, a country nestled on the corner of the Arabian Peninsula with limited history when it comes to red or white-ball versions of the game.
But that could be about to change come Sunday as Oman, alongside the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, is set to host the T20 World Cup.
Originally scheduled to take place in India, it was decided earlier this year that the tournament would be moved amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So Oman, which only built its first grass cricket pitch 10 years ago, offered its services.
"It's purely a one in a million years opportunity," Pankaj Khimji, chairman of Oman Cricket, tells CNN Sport.
"Never has an associate country [on the International Cricket Council] hosted a World Cup. And not just that, has also played in one simultaneously. This is a big high for us in Oman."
It wasn't so long ago that the idea of hosting an international cricket tournament would have been unthinkable. There were a handful of brown pitches with concrete wickets in the center, one of which was later updated to astroturf.
Each year, stones and pebbles would be painstakingly removed from the outfield and sand placed on the surface. But that hardly made the prospect of diving for a catch any more appealing.
"You never dived," explains Khimji. "You could get second, third degree burns from having skin scraped off -- it was vicious earth."
Needless to say, playing conditions have been dramatically improved ahead of Oman's T20 World Cup opener against Papua New Guinea at the Al-Amerat Cricket Stadium, located 18 kilometres outside the capital of Muscat.
The stadium's seating -- previously comprising of 52 park benches shaded under trees -- has been upgraded to a 5,000-seat infrastructure; the venue's lighting system has been enhanced and a press box and media center have also been added -- all in the space of 90 days.
This year marks the seventh edition of the T20 World Cup: 45 matches which run from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14.
Oman will contest a preliminary group that includes Papua New Guinea, Scotland and Bangladesh, from which the top two teams qualify for the Super 12s -- the later stage of the tournament.
Backed by 4,000 home fans at each game, Khimji is confident that this Omani team -- "a good vintage" -- can qualify for the next round. He adds, though, that on-field success is just part of the aim.
"If I can put Oman in the minds of the cricketing audience globally and how beautiful it is, and then even if one in 50 start looking up on the internet and say: 'Hey, what's happening in Oman?' and start searching Oman, that itself will be a major accomplishment," he says.
According to Khimji, football, sailing and fishing -- which benefits from the country's extensive coastline -- are all popular in Oman.
The cricket team, meanwhile, is made up of part-time players who balance their sporting commitments with nine-to-five jobs.
"Every time they play a tournament, they have to secure permission from their so-called employers to relieve them to go on national team duty," says Khimji.
"Sometimes, it's a challenge. More often than not, these employers have been very, very supportive ... Some of them have retained their jobs, some of them have been put on a stipend every time they go out to play."
The pandemic has delayed the launch of a grassroots program in Oman, which would see cricket played for four hours each week in schools across the country.
Once this foundation is in place, the standout players would then have the chance to play professional or semi-professional cricket further down the line.
But for those who will represent Oman at this year's World Cup -- almost all of whom are expat players -- the rewards won't necessarily be financial.
"In 10 years' time, they'll be telling their children stories about how their father played cricket at the World Cup," says Khimji.
"I think that's what it's all about now. They're all playing for pride, passion, family, country, friends. I'm very proud of the bunch."
Before those stories can be told, an historic sporting moment awaits for Oman as the T20 World Cup is just the bowl of a ball and the swing of a bat away.