Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Diplomats from countries where cricket enjoys widespread popularity have expressed their delight at the raft of new programs by the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation’s (SACF) aimed at raising the popularity of the game in the Kingdom, both among locals and members of their own communities.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News last week, Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al-Saud, chairman of the SACF, revealed the game-changing plans for cricket in Saudi Arabia, outlining a series of major initiatives that will increase participation among citizens and expatriates at community, club, and international level.

The federation has also signed several deals and MoUs with governmental, semi-governmental, and non-governmental entities setting out plans to raise awareness of the game, increase cricket facilities nationwide, and introduce the sport to Saudi youth through school programs.

For decades, cricket had already enjoyed a significant level of participation at community level in Saudi Arabia, and diplomats from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the UK, and other figures have backed the new plans to increase engagement and to promote integration between different nationalities.

“It is heartening to see the SACF grow and develop this much in just one year,” Pakistani Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Raja Ali Ejaz told Arab News. “I am personally very happy to see cricket taking root in the society in Saudi Arabia. We Pakistanis are truly sentimental about the game and the onset of cricketing activities in the Kingdom is nothing less than a cherished treat.

“I hope the detailed vision of the SACF chairman materializes triumphantly,” he said, adding: “His layout for the series of tournaments scheduled for 2021 is impressive and a major mood-lifter in an otherwise poignant time of a global pandemic.”

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Among those competitions is the National Cricket Championship, played across 11 cities and part of four programs that SACF signed with the Saudi Sports For All Federation. Launched in February 2021, it is to date the largest cricket tournament held in the history of Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there will be a corporate cricket tournament launched in October and November, a cricket league for expatriate workers, and a social cricket program introduced in various cities. Throughout the year, SACF is planning to have 20,000 participants taking part in these programs.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to offer Pakistan’s support and collaboration with the SACF for the establishment of proper cricket-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, including cricket academies, talent-hunting campaigns, grounds, and coaching facilities,” Ejaz said. “Pakistan is one of the world’s top cricket nations with the love for cricket running deep in its society. It also has a well-formed institutional framework and expertise in these areas and international cricket. The Pakistan Cricket Board and the SACF have a lot to collaborate on, while attracting business and goodwill in both the countries.”

He added: “I wish my brother Prince Saud bin Mishal the very best for his endeavours and look forward to seeing international cricket flourishing in the Kingdom.”

The established initiatives, as well as those in the pipeline, are part of the Kingdom’s mission to promote a healthy and active lifestyle under the Saudi Vision 2030’s Quality of Life program, with the SACF, supported by the Ministry of Sports and Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, mandated to increase physical activity levels by 40 percent over the next decade.

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While Prince Saud is keen to attract Saudi youth to cricket through more school activities and community programs, the SACF is also striving to provide a better quality of life for expatriates working in the Kingdom. The federation is also planning programs involving embassies and corporations that have significant numbers of employees who take part in domestic cricket matches.

“As a cricket fan, I am always pleased to see others play the sport,” British Ambassador Neil Crompton said.

“I know that cricket has always had some fans in the region. We also welcome Prince Saud’s emphasis on the government’s commitment to enhancing the quality of life for expatriates.

“Seif Usher, our consul general in Jeddah, is working on a glossary of cricketing phrases in Arabic,” he added.

The Sri Lankan Embassy’s Charge d’ Affairs Madhuka Wickramarachchi told Arab News that while cricket has always enjoyed reverential levels of popularity in his country and among South Asian communities, it was hugely encouraging to see it spread among Saudis and other Arab nationalities.

“We are delighted to see that Saudi Arabia has taken some forward-looking, long-term steps in popularizing cricket among its citizens and expat community as well,” he said. “We believe that the series of cricket matches and competitions organized by the SACF across the Kingdom and its effort to combine the sport with school activities and community programs would encourage more youths to embrace this sport.”

Prince Saud also revealed that leading international players and coaches would be recruited to unearth Saudi talent, a move applauded by Wickramarachchi.

“We congratulate the SACF for taking this initiative and we are delighted to see that world-class cricketers are emerging from the Kingdom,” he added. “It seems that an international cricket encounter between Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia is possible in the near future.”

Among the established cricketers in the Kingdom who welcomed the changes is Abdul Qadir Khan, a Pakistani who currently plays with the Riyadh Cricket Association and who has represented Saudi Arabia at both junior and senior levels.

“Now that there is government-level patronage to cricket in Saudi Arabia, it will grow by leaps and bounds,” he said. “Cricket has been around for decades. There is also a Saudi national cricket team, but due to the absence of  government-level patronage, cricket has remained incognito. I am sure with these programs cricket will grow in Saudi Arabia and more expatriates and Saudis would be drawn towards this sport.”

Aneesur Rehman, an Indian expta who plays in the Riyadh Cricket League and who is also the manager of the Jamia Millia Alumni Association Cricket Club, said: “As a cricketer in Riyadh I am delighted to read about these plans. I am looking forward to my favourite sport taking a big leap in the Kingdom with the SACF keen to introduce a series of programs and domestic leagues.”

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