Dramatic last-ball six from Sikandar Raza wins ILT20 thriller for Dubai Capitals

Qualification for ACC Premier Cup ‘just the beginning’ for cricket in Kingdom, victorious Saudi Arabia says

LONDON/BANGKOK: Saudi Arabia’s back-to-back qualification for the ACC Men’s Premier Cup is “just the beginning” for the development of the sport in the Kingdom, the team’s star batter and head coach both said.

Saudi Arabia smashed their way to a 10-wicket victory over Japan in the Asian Cricket Council Men’s Challenger Cup semifinal on Friday to set up a final against Cambodia on Sunday.

The semifinal win means the Greens will make a return to the next stage of Asia Cup qualification — the Premier Cup to be held in Oman in April. They will be looking to improve on their one win in the tournament last year.

Speaking to Arab News after his team’s win on Friday, captain Hisham Shaikh was in buoyant mood, not just about his team’s chances of retaining the title they won in 2023 but also about advancing beyond the Premier Cup and into next year’s Asia Cup proper, where giants of the game such as India and Pakistan await.

“I think all of our boys have prepared themselves in a way that they can challenge those teams there (in Oman) and perform well at that level,” he told Arab News.

“We all aspire to be a nation that does well and gets within the top 20 teams in the rankings and, I think, last year we gave them a tough time and we want to set another milestone this time around. So, it’s T20 cricket and any of the teams can have their day, so I believe if we have a good round of matches, we can go through,” he added.

Head coach Kabir Khan said his team’s preparations for this year’s cycle of tournaments had shown a marked improvement, which was helping them perform to the best of their ability and the results were being borne out on the pitch.

“A lot of work has been done on the fitness and obviously the discipline, and different coaches have been hired as well now, in batting, bowling and fielding positions,” he said.

“Things are shaping up, we hope that the way we are thinking, and our (Saudi Arabia Cricket Federation) officials are thinking too, we should be qualifying for the World Cups and getting to the next rounds (of tournaments). That is our goal.

“And for that, we need to work a bit harder. I think these tournaments are good for us, it shows our class, but obviously, the main goal is to go higher up and it’s only the beginning, if you look at top (level) cricket, it’s only the beginning,” he said.

Star batter Abdul Waheed echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“I would say all the hard work has paid off right now. We have been (over the past) three months working for this tournament and then, after, for upcoming tournaments,” he said.

“And the boys are doing really well, working to a plan we have done in our training. So, we are just utilizing that and we are playing our natural game.

“To be honest, my main focus is to bring our national team to the next level and we want to qualify for a World Cup. It’s just the beginning, I would say, and my focus is (to aim) higher and higher. Throughout my life, I’ve just wanted to bring our Saudi team to (within) the top 10 teams (in the world),” he said.

Waheed was optimistic about Saudi Arabia’s chances of causing a few upsets and giving a good showing in Oman.

“We are happy to go to Oman and compete with the strongest teams in the ACC T20 (rankings). (Especially with) the way we are playing, the way the boys are playing, they’re doing really well,” he said.

“They’re more focused, they’re playing accordingly — (adapting) to the weather, to the wicket, and to the (opposing) team, so we are excited to play in that ACC tournament.”

Khan said that his team would not be phased by the step-up in opposition in Oman.

“Last year it was 50-over games. And, obviously, teams like Oman and Nepal, they are quite experienced, they’ve played that kind of cricket for a longer time than us. We gave a good fight to Oman, we were very close to winning that game (last year),” he said.

“But even at that tournament, although we won just one game, we did show our class there as well, we showed the quality of cricket we play and the type of upset we can produce as well.

“So, there was something there obviously, and when we went there and we came back, people said: ‘There is a new cricket team coming up and obviously they’re going to give tough times to every team,’” he said.

Tariq Ziad Sagga, the SACF CEO, outlined to Arab News how the federation had stepped up its support for the men’s team in its endeavours to compete at the highest level, but also how it is developing the youth game in Saudi Arabia to maintain progress.

“(Over the past) two years, we’ve increased the number of matches, the international camps and international tours to improve their performance. We hired more international coaches, we increased the playing hours and the training hours daily for most of the players to develop their skills and keep them always in shape and ready for any tournament,” he said.

“We do have regional tournaments, we have a National Cricket Championship in 13 cities, and this year we’e launching the National Associations Championship, with representative from all associations and regions to compete against each other.

“We have a complete grassroots program, divided into two programs — one for the local schools, which introduces cricket to them. And we have another school program for the international schools, for the expats, who know cricket and have played in the schools.

“This, I think, will cover this gap between club cricket and international cricket,” he said.

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