Sports Confusion reigns as cricket makes African Games debut

RIYADH: Cricket is a much-loved sport, second only to soccer as the most-watched sport on the globe, and it is widely followed in Saudi Arabia.

This is not surprising, given the significant expatriate population from Asian countries familiar with the game. Cricket has undoubtedly flourished in the Kingdom, with facilities provided by the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation, sponsorships and strong patronage — and with the men’s team winning consecutive ACC Men’s Challenger Cups, this year and last year in Bangkok.

Yet women’s cricket is also in the ascendency in Saudi Arabia. Amna Khan, who was part of the Saudi team on the Oman tour for the GCC Women’s T20I Championship Cup, told Arab News: “I am glad to see the rise of women’s cricket in Saudi Arabia. Given the chance and support needed, there are many girls keen to play the game and (who) look forward to joining the team.

“The GCC Women’s T20I Championship held at the Oman Cricket Academy from March 20-26, 2022 was Saudi Arabia Women’s first-ever international cricket tournament. I am glad I was part of the team,” she added.

“As an expat, Saudi Arabia has been my home for years. Playing in its national team was my way of expressing gratitude. I feel a deep responsibility to represent this country.”

Khan, a sports teacher at the Pakistan International School English Section, said: “The maiden outing for the Saudi women’s team will always be seen as one to gain exposure in the international game. It was a young team, and after the exposure a sense of competition started among us.”

She added she had a longstanding love of the game. “I was very passionate about sports activities. I have been playing cricket since my school days in Pakistan, and also represented my college team.

“Two years ago the Saudi women’s cricket team was formed, just ahead of the Oman tour in 2022 by the SACF, and I was selected in the team as (a) player and the assistant manager. It was an amazing experience to be part of the team,” she added.

Khan is also coach and manager of the women’s team for the “Six-a-Side” tournament organized by the SACF, and served as a coach at the Saudi Games 2023, which included cricket for the first time.

“I have completed ICC level one cricket coaching arranged by the SACF and looking forward to completing level two. I am thankful to the cricket federation and its CEO Tariq Ziad Sagga, and head coach (of the) Saudi cricket team, Kabir Khan, for extending all the support. Not only me — there are many girls very excited about playing cricket and joining the national team when they get a chance.

“Of course SACF is very supportive and their continued support will keep encouraging new talents,” she said, adding: “There are a lot of girls very passionate about the game and looking forward to joining the team. It’s so natural for us to be inspired by our peers in Pakistan, and now we want to build a strong team here.

“When I was (a) child, I saw girls playing cricket, so it appealed to me too, and I started playing it. I am a sports teacher in PISES, and when the women’s team was formed here, I decided to join. I must thank head coach Kabir Khan because he motivated me a lot,” said Khan.  
“I am also thankful to PISES Principal Muhammad Tanveer for encouraging us to support sports activities, and participate in it,” said Khan, who is also part of Riyadh-based Talent Hub Cricket Academy run by Ibrahim Khan.

Arab News spoke to Ayra Azeem, an Indian raised in Saudi Arabia, who was busy in net practice at Mark Cricket Academy, which is affiliated with the Riyadh Cricket Association.

“I like the game,” she said. “I have seen girls playing cricket in my homeland, India. It inspired me to play the game. When the SACF, formed in 2020, (it) lined up a series of major programs to promote the game among Saudis and expatriates in the Kingdom — I told my family, ‘I want to play the game,’ and they supported me. I come to the academy regularly to practice it and look forward to joining the Saudi Cricket team one day.

“Saudi Arabia has been my second home. Playing cricket to make it to the national team one day is what I dream. I feel a deep responsibility to represent this country,” Azeem told Arab News.

“With Cricket’s popularity growing in Saudi Arabia including women’s cricket, I am happy to be part of this change and enjoy play the game,” she said.

Her sister, Ayaat Ayesha, aged just four years old, is perhaps the youngest cricketer in Saudi Arabia, and also comes to practice with her at the academy. Though it is hard to make a grip, she holds the bat properly in order to hit the ball and has an idea how it is played.

Their father, Mohammed Azimooddin Abdul Rahiman Karajagi, who is an ICC-certified level 3 high performance cricket coach and ICC-certified curator and umpire, as well as head coach of the RCA, is very positive about his daughters playing cricket and making him proud one day.

Ketaki Kulkarni, the women’s team coach and trainer at the Mark Cricket Academy and the RCA, told Arab News she has played domestic women’s cricket leagues in India and represented her state Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy.

“With my husband working here, I am residing in Riyadh now. It’s so exciting to see the SACF promoting the game among girls and pursuing their mission to have a formidable women’s cricket team,” said Kulkarni.

“Now people in Saudi Arabia are increasingly interested in cricket, including women’s cricket. That’s a big change happening. I am proud to be part of this change that normalizes women’s presence in all sports and look forward to joining the Saudi women’s cricket team,” she said.

“My greatest ambition is to help young talents at the academy and the women’s cricket in the country, enabling young girls to pursue their dreams without encountering the obstacles like absence of female trainers and coaches earlier,” she added.

Praising the cricket landscape in the Kingdom and efforts made by the SACF to promote the game, Kulkarni said: “Attitude in Saudi Arabia towards women’s sport has undergone a positive change in the recent past. I am really excited to see the development of cricket in Saudi Arabia with the federation planning to have professional cricket academies, more grounds, better facilities around them to attract Saudis as well as expatriates to the game.”

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