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RIYADH: With the popularity of cricket growing in Saudi Arabia, the sport’s league is expanding with the aim of establishing a professional league system and building a formidable national side that can qualify for the World Cup, not just win regional tournaments.

The sport has undoubtedly flourished with the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation lining up a series of programs, gaining sponsorships and strong patronage. The Saudi team won the ACC Men’s Challenger Cup this year and the inaugural one last year in Bangkok.

The Challenger Cup is the first staging post in the Asian Cricket Council’s restructured three-tier pathway toward its top tournament — the Asia Cup.

The Saudi cricket team will now play the ACC Men’s Premier Cup, a tournament that provides a qualification pathway toward the next Asia Cup.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Kabir Khan, technical director for the Saudi cricket league system, said: “Our biggest cricket league is the National Cricket Championship (NCC), in which all clubs associated with the SACF participate. We are now going to restructure the tournament to build a formidable side that can qualify for the world cup.” 

In the opening NCC in 2021, cricket teams across Saudi Arabia battled it out to be crowned National Cricket Champions. The Saudi Sports for All Federation and the SACF joined forces to launch the Kingdom’s largest-ever cricket tournament with the participation of 369 teams and 15 cricket associations.

In the second NCC last year, more than 400 teams participated, and now a total of about 500 teams will play the new format of the biggest cricket championship in the Kingdom, Khan said.

“Previously, leagues were being played with each region having their own champions, but now top teams from all regions will qualify for the grand finale and the top four teams will play the semi-final, two will qualify to the final, and ultimately one is to be crowned as the winner of the NCC,” he told Arab News.

“First there will be inter-club matches where all 500 teams will participate that have about 15,000 registered players. Then it will be followed by inter-associations matches and finally inter-region matches,” Khan said.

According to the SACF, the cricket associations affiliated with the federation include: Western Province Cricket Association (WPCA) and Jeddah Cricket Association (JCA) in Jeddah, Riyadh Cricket Association (RCA) and Riyadh Cricket League (RCL) in Riyadh, Eastern Province Cricket Association (EPCA) and Eastern Region Cricket Association (ERCA) in Dammam, Jubail Cricket Association (JCA) in Jubail, Al-Qassim Cricket League (AQCL) and Al-Qassim Super League (AQSL) in Al-Qassim, Jazan Premier Cricket League (JPCL) and Jazan Region Cricket Association (JRCA) in Jazan, Madinah Munawwarah Cricket Association (MMCA) in Madinah, Aseer Cricket League (ACL) in Abha and Najran Cricket Association (NCA) in Najran. All of them have dozens of club teams playing under their banner, and each association has 20 players registered with them.

Khan told Arab News that there are six regions — Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Makkah, Madinah and Yanbu — each having 20 players with them.

“Thus a tournament beginning with 15,000 players will reach 120 players at the final stage — inter-region matches, this includes the playing 11 and the extra players for replacement, through step-by-step filtration based on points table,” he said.

“RCA, RCL, WPCA and EPCA are the biggest leagues in terms of club membership. However, we do not have a ranking system for the domestic league.”

Khan said: “At the basic level, cemented or concrete pitches are available where cricket is played. There are more than 100 cricket grounds across the Kingdom. In Riyadh itself there are about 25 grounds. These are all sandy grounds. Only Yanbu has a grass cricket ground. As we aim to restructure the system, we will change the cement pitches to a turf pitch.”

Turf cricket pitches are the traditional choice, and revered for their natural playing characteristics.

Khan, who is also the head coach of the Saudi cricket team, said that the SACF’s target was to make the Kingdom a world-class cricketing destination in line with Saudi Vision 2030.

The SACF was established in 2020 with 12 associations, and had registered more than 6,000 players in its first year.

Rahat Ali Chaudhry, team manager at the federation, told Arab News: “The matches are mostly T20 and 40 overs played round the year. The 40-overs matches are mostly played in Riyadh and Dammam, the rest of the associations mostly play the T20 format.”

Due to the searing heat during the summer, there is a two-month break for players in Riyadh in June and July, he said.

Saudi Arabia is currently placed 31 in the ICC T20 ranking and is seeking an ODI ranking.

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