By Duleep Mendis’ own admission Oman and cricket are not usually thought of in the same breath. But if the Sri Lankan legend has his way, soon everyone will be associating the Gulf country with the sound of leather on willow.
Mendis is coach of a side which in just a few short years have stormed from Division Six of the ICC leagues to Division Two, and now have their sights firmly set on achieving one-day-international (ODI) status.
That this all took place with Mendis at the helm is no coincidence. The man who captained Sri Lanka to their first Test series win, over India in 1985, was also the team manager of the Sri Lankan side that shocked the cricketing world in 1996 by winning the World Cup. And the 66-year-old is looking to create more cricketing alchemy with Oman.
“Our one driving aim is to get ODI status; that would be the pinnacle for us,” Mendis told Arab News. “Every board member wants it, every player is looking for it and it is what every fan wants. Everyone wants that ODI status to be won.
“After seeing (the team) for a long time and seeing how they can play and how they’ve improved, I am quite confident we can achieve it.”
The team play in the ICC World Cricket League Division Two tournament in Namibia next month knowing that a top-four finish — out of a group of six — would guarantee that sought-after ODI status and the chance to play against the big boys and possibly one day make it to the World Cup.
One of the established sides they would share ODI status with is Ireland. In 2017 the Emerald Isle, along with Afghanistan, achieved Test status and had already made a name for themselves in the shorter form of the game, beating Pakistan at the 2007 World Cup, England in the 2011 edition, and then the West Indies at the 2015 showpiece — results that sent shockwaves though the cricketing establishment.
But the Irish were no match for Oman at the World Twenty20 in 2016 when Mendis’ men beat their rivals by two wickets in India. It was a result that the Sri Lankan said was as important to cricket in the country as his own country’s 1996 World Cup win was there.
“The win over Ireland was big,” Mendis said. “No one bargained we would beat Ireland because they have been getting better every year and are on a high pedestal.
“But I knew by the way the boys were playing that they were going to do something in that tournament and the win was a real morale boost for the team and people in Oman.
“Everyone was then talking about cricket, talking about the players and the captain.
“I remember 1996. I was manager of the Sri Lanka team and chairman of the selectors when we won the World Cup. That changed the whole set-up in Sri Lanka. Likewise, when Oman beat Ireland that changed everything in Oman.”
While the feel-good factor was increased thanks to that result, it is fair to say the groundwork for such a rapid improvement had been laid long before. Having initially been in charge on a tour-by-tour basis, Mendis has now been the coach for five years. By his own admission, before that he knew that there was an Oman team but “didn’t know much, to be honest.”
But from then on, thanks to “a lot of passionate people on the cricket board,” the infrastructure has been revolutionized and there is now a world-class set-up able to, and with the aim of, producing great players and teams.
“The board and everyone want Oman to do well and are genuinely passionate about the game and making a huge effort,” Mendis said.
“The board is really driving Oman cricket forward. It has been easy for me because of the work they have done. We have two beautifully laid-out grounds with floodlights and the new academy (in Al-Amarat). It has improved the team’s performance tremendously. Anyone can come and play cricket in Oman now.”
Of his own input he added: “I knew what the players needed. When I saw them first it was clear that the technique was there.
“Most of the boys come from India and Pakistan and cricket is in their blood, they know about cricket, they have played cricket at a certain level. But their mental side was not very strong. I started working on that and strengthened their technique and tour by tour we started doing well. The finale was beating Ireland at the World T20.”
While the team is heavily drawn from the expatriate community, there is little doubting that the popularity of cricket is growing across Oman. There are more and more Omanis taking up the game and Mendis is hopeful that will only continue.
“In the Middle East, the sporting culture is dominated by football and it has been tough to get them into cricket but we are gradually getting them more involved,” the Sri Lankan said. “We obviously draw a lot on the expatriate community but at the same time we have seven full Omani teams participating in the local domestic tournament and also we are trying to do our best to get the local Omani boys into this game, this is very encouraging for the future.
“The national team is doing well. Everyone, including the local Omanis, is talking about cricket now.”
While all the players are amateurs — Mendis was at pains to praise the understanding of the companies his stars work for — the preparations for the Nambia tournament are anything but. Before their first match against the US — they also face Canada, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea and the hosts — they will spend two weeks at a training camp in Pretoria, South Africa.
“We have quite a few players who I think will shine on a big stage,” the coach said. “I don’t want to single anyone out, there are a few who are good.
“I would say all the teams (in Namibia) are quite good. But we just played the US here and we beat them and became the champions (in 2018) and we have played Canada and have beaten them. All the rivals we have played and seen them earlier, so it will be a good contest.”
Oman faced the more experienced Scotland in a three-match ODI series last month and while they were bowled out for just 24 in the first match — of that Mendis joked: “I think we never played the first game” — they bounced back to win the second contest before giving a great account of themselves in the decider, ultimately losing by 15 runs chasing 304 for victory.
That gives them confidence ahead of their Namibian quest for ODI status — Scotland are ranked 13th in the world — and if they are successful Mendis is in no doubt as to what the next aim would be.
“The ultimate aim is to one day get to the World Cup. I just hope I am around to see it,” he said.
Given the pace of change over the past few years, you would not bet against them doing just that.
The UAE were the cricketing pioneers of the Middle East. The side played in the 1996 World Cup, have ODI status and have hosted many Test matches and ODIs. But rather than be jealous, Duleep Mendis claimed that the relationship between Oman and their Emirati neighbors was a good one.
“I would say it is a very healthy rivalry between us and the UAE,” the Oman coach said. “Sometimes we beat them and sometimes they beat us. But it goes on and hopefully if we reach the ODI status I think that will help us to gain more experience.”
Of cricket throughout the Middle East, he added: “I think quite a lot of people are hungry to see cricket do well in the Middle East. I have seen in Oman, the UAE and a little bit in Kuwait; they are all interested in cricket and it is a healthy sign (for the future).”
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