The millionaire family that built cricket in Oman
On the final day of the World Cricket League Division Five in Jersey last May, a promotion berth was at stake between Oman and Guernsey, who had a chance to cause an upset.
After scratching their way to 141 for 8, Guernsey had reduced Oman to 13 for 4. The tension at the ground was immense as a group of schoolkids on their way to football practice, totally oblivious to cricket etiquette, started walking near the sightscreen, distracting the Oman batsmen at the crease. The bench was stirred up like a hornet's nest, but a wise board member, standing behind the boundary rope at long-off, knew that any bee can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
"Hey kids!" he shouted out while approaching them. "If you want to cross the sightscreen that's fine, but I need you to do me a favour first. Our boys out there really need your support right now, so on the count of three, I need you to shout, 'O - MAN! O - MAN!'" The kids giggled at first, then after the next ball was bowled, obliged, following the middle-aged gentleman's lead. An enthusiastic thank you to the kids followed. The Oman bench grinned at a man who is their friend, father, brother, boss and biggest fan: Pankaj Khimji.
Over the course of the last decade, Afghanistan have been a shining example of the merit-based value of the World Cricket League structure, vaulting from Division Five in 2008 to Division One by the middle of 2009. For every Afghanistan, though, there has to be a team going in the opposite direction to keep promotion and relegation in balance. Argentina, who were in Division Two in 2007, experienced five straight relegations, eventually being banished back to regional qualifying, the feeder into Division Five.
Oman has experienced both sides of the coin. After gaining admission as an Affiliate nation in 2000, they reached the 2005 ICC Trophy in Ireland, and were again a de facto Division One team, appearing at the 2009 ICC World Cup Qualifier in South Africa. A series of relegations, concluding with a bottom-two finish at 2014 WCL Division Four, saw them slide all the way back to Division Five.
Almost at rock-bottom, the side's stunning resurgence began at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier in Scotland and Ireland, where wins over Afghanistan, Netherlands and Canada preceded a knockout win over Namibia to reach the 2016 World T20. A stunning win over Ireland in Dharamsala helped spark a rejuvenation in 50-over cricket as well, and by the end of the year the team had secured twin promotions from Division Five back into Division Three, now two steps away from getting back into Division One at the 2018 World Cup Qualifier. They have some familiar faces and some new ones to help get them there, but the one constant through all of the ups and downs in the Oman cricket journey has been one name: Khimji.
"Cricket in Oman, all credit goes to the Khimji family," says long-time Oman team manager Jameel Zaidi.
The modern era of cricket in Oman began in the 1970s, spearheaded by the enthusiasm of the Khimji patriarch, Kanaksi, a man Zaidi refers to as "the godfather of cricket in Oman". With the support of the Oman royal family, Oman Cricket was formally established in 1979, with Kanaksi as president and His Highness Sayyid Abbas Bin Faisal as patron-in-chief.
Pankaj, Kanaksi's 55-year-old son, who has been an Oman Cricket board member for more than 20 years and who was also elected to a position on the Asian Cricket Council executive board last year, says the Oman cricket story begins a little bit further back.
"My father played school cricket and then played cricket in Oman in the early '60s, and probably even late '50s, against the visiting British naval teams when they used to anchor in our harbours and we'd give them a game of cricket," Pankaj says. "One of our royal highnesses who studied in Africa had played cricket in the schools, so it was quite a passion amongst them.
"I can say that the family definitely has played a significant role in developing cricket and making cricket a success story, and I would like to say this with the utmost humility. My father, my uncles, my cousins - we're all a passionate cricket family.
"We used to travel six hours by car to Sharjah to watch - the early days when Sharjah cricket and the Bukhatir league started. People would call us crazy."
It's a particularly eccentric habit, considering the family seemingly had other more pressing interests to keep them occupied, in the form of the Khimji Ramdas business empire. A fifth-generation company first established in 1870, the company is omnipresent in Oman: from construction and manufacturing to restaurant and car-dealership franchising, supermarkets to shipping, insurance and travel agency divisions, residential and commercial real estate assets as well as schools (including Muscat's first English language-instruction school, which opened in 1975).
The Khimji family's net worth has been estimated to be around US$900 million as of 2015. Kanaksi is labelled "the world's only Hindu sheikh". The honorary title - and citizenship - was bestowed upon the 81-year-old by the Oman royal family as a gesture to recognise the Khimjis' impact on Omani society. Yet whatever free time the family has available is dedicated mainly to cricket.
"At every tournament, whether it is in Ireland, Jersey, India, [Kanaksi] is always with the team, coming there, supporting the team, taking them to dinner every day and Pankaj has come and joined us also," Zaidi says. "These are the people who are running the show, absolutely. Their interest and the cricket, which has reached this level, is because of them.
"Mashallah, they are corporate guys, they are millionaires, and the only thing is their interest in giving us a lot of things. Whenever we are short of funds, they pour their money in it. They take care of all of us like family members. So the boys have respect for them, and what they have done for cricket is absolutely amazing."
Kanaksi has maintained his role as chairman of Oman Cricket since its inception, a reign approaching 40 years. In some places, a board chief holding on to power for that long might be met with a cynical response. Mostly, though, Kanaksi is respected and admired for his stewardship, and in 2011 the ICC Development Programme gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to cricket in Oman.
At the local level that includes the family's involvement and support for the domestic cricket league, which is centred on a corporate structure. Muscat Cricket Club, a team run by Khimji Ramdas, includes many employees who also play for the national team, among them Swapnil Khadye, Vaibhav Wategaonkar, Munis Ansari, Jatinder Singh and Rajesh Ranpura. Having corporate backing allows them to earn a living while getting flexible work hours to train for the national team.
"We are lucky in Oman that all the corporate companies understand what we are doing," says Ranpura, who works as a production supervisor in a paint manufacturing plant for Khimji Ramdas. "Each corporate company has their own team and they practise in the afternoon. When a national team camp is there, in the morning we are doing fitness training, afternoon we do cricket training, and in the evening we have more training.
"Khimji Ramdas is like family for us. I'm playing for him and it's like a second home for us. We celebrate all the festivals together. We are always connected with them. Whenever we have a problem, they are always ready to help us, especially Pankaj bhai, even at the local league. All the time, he and Kanaksi, whenever they are available, they are on the ground watching 50-over games and T20 games all the time."
The family's modesty also stands out. A regular fixture at Oman's various tournament stops around the world, Pankaj is enthusiastic but hardly bombastic in his support for the team from the sidelines. He is quick to deflect attention onto others, especially regarding the team's resurgence over the last two years, for which he credits current coach and development officer Duleep Mendis.
"That brought about a sense of preparation - a regime that made sure the team was always in a state of fitness, whether we are in a playing season or not in a playing season," Pankaj says. "He kept on identifying the fast-development track players, who was on the out and who was on the swing up. Fitness became a very important role, so we had a few people in Oman who helped in building that.
"On tours, we had Derek Pringle, Rumesh Ratnayake, Sunil Joshi, who helped the team fine-tune themselves in those aspects of the game. Madhu Jesrani, who has been the secretary of cricket for many years, I think, is the heart and soul of our cricket. He keeps the team involved, he keeps the families involved as well."
Certain infrastructure improvements have also played a major role in Oman's recent success. For years, cricket in the country was played on artificial wickets, before the inaugural turf wicket opened at Al Amerat, a facility on the south-eastern outskirts of Muscat, in late 2012. A second floodlit turf ground opened up in the same complex in late 2015, and a third ground, with practice facilities, is currently being developed at the site; it is scheduled to open later this year.
The new turf wickets allowed Oman to host their first bilateral series, in April, with UAE visiting for three 50-over matches as part of Oman's preparation for WCL Division Three in Uganda this month. If the third turf-wicket ground opens on schedule and Oman gain promotion to Division Two, they will have the requisite number of grounds to host the event and are expected to make a bid. Pankaj credits the royal family with making land and extra funding available to develop for cricket, both locally and for when the team is touring abroad.
"A couple of years ago His Majesty gave us an endowment to develop the infrastructure of cricket in Oman," Pankaj says. "That's when we got our green grounds, and we're now building a clubhouse with an indoor eight-lane practice wicket. Hopefully, by September 2017, we should have our clubhouse and our facility, which we can call the home of cricket in Oman. We got our qualification from the ministry of sports a few years ago, which meant we are now able to receive some funds to develop cricket, especially when we are going on overseas tours."
Another factor that helped them do well abroad was the Khimjis' MCC connections. In familiar conditions at the 2012 World T20 Qualifier in the UAE, Oman went 0-7, finishing last in their eight-team round-robin group. Kanaksi and Pankaj are MCC members and their relationship with MCC director of cricket John Stephenson led to Derek Pringle coming on board as a key addition to the backroom staff ahead of the 2015 World T20 Qualifier, producing a dramatic reversal of results in alien conditions. Pankaj then helped bring an MCC touring squad to Oman early in 2016 in the build-up to the World T20, and a series of four matches between the sides helped Oman gear up for battle with Ireland.
With all this financial and logistical help available, why are Oman's cricketers still amateurs? Particularly after achieving T20I status in 2015, shouldn't the board be arranging more fixtures and making efforts to turn players professional, especially as they approach this month's WCL Division Three tournament in Uganda with an eye toward reaching the 2018 World Cup Qualifier and Division One status once more? The answer is not so simple, considering that the overwhelming majority of Omani players are Indian and Pakistani expats whose local residency is based on the work visas sponsored by their corporate employers.
"The ICC doesn't organise bilaterals, and it's not cheap," Pankaj says. "There's a cost and you must realise that most of our players are amateur players and they have work to do. It's unfair for us to keep going back to their sponsors and employers to say, 'Free them up.' They might as well not work.
"The government of Oman are already supporting us with infrastructure. Having two tournaments [a year] is good for Oman for the next couple of years so that we can focus on our own domestic cricket."
As a consequence, the daily grind is taxing, to say the least. For most players in the national squad, days start at 5am, with a two-hour session, before they head home to shower and be at work by 9am. Some can get away for another 90 minutes during a 1:30pm lunch break before going back to work and then coming back in the evening for another session. It means little time is left for family or social endeavours. But players like Ranpura don't seem to mind, especially when they see someone like Pankaj standing by their side.
"Pankaj sir is always there for us," Ranpura says. "Whenever we require, he is with us. I'm working under him in the same company. Basically he is like a morale booster for our team."
After the scare early in their chase against Guernsey, vice-captain Aamir Kaleem bailed the side out by scoring a calm 35 before Khadye saw Oman over the line with an unbeaten 33, guaranteeing Oman promotion to Division Four. As Khadye walked off the field, the youth football practice on the adjacent portion of the FB Fields complex was let out and the same group of kids had begun making their way past the sightscreen again. Seeing the Oman players about to greet Khadye, the kids spontaneously began shouting "O - MAN! O - MAN!" once again.
The players laughed and cheered back, clapping to show their appreciation, but nobody was more thrilled than Pankaj Khimji. The multi-millionaire missionary's family zeal to proselytise for cricket in Oman knows no bounds. His countrymen are hoping such efforts will garner a few more disciples this month, when the team are in Uganda for WCL Division Three on their crusade back toward the top flight of Associate cricket.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna