Exclusive: Saudi Arabia’s game-changing-plans for cricket in the Kingdom

Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF). (AN Photo)
Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF). (AN Photo)
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Updated 31 March 2021

Exclusive: Saudi Arabia’s game-changing-plans for cricket in the Kingdom

Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF). (AN Photo)
  • Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) chairman Prince Saud bin Mishal Al Saud outlines vision for the sport and produce competitive national teams
  • A main objective is better quality of life for expats living in Kingdom, and to attract Saudis to the sport

RIYADH: Cricket is set to take a giant leap across Saudi Arabia with the game’s ruling body in the Kingdom set to introduce a series of competitions and programs that will encourage the nation’s youth to take up one of the world’s oldest and most popular sports.

For years, even decades, cricket in Saudi Arabia was a game played almost exclusively by expatriate communities from South Asian countries.

But things are set to change rapidly.

Today, the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF), established in 2020, has lined up a series of major programs focused on promoting the game among Saudis and expatriates in the Kingdom.

Above all, long term plans have been put in place to ensure that Saudi Arabian national teams can compete with the world’s best in the future.

With Prince Saud Bin Mishal Al Saud as chairman, the federation is now the single body responsible for all matters relating to cricket in the Kingdom. After a year of major disruptions for all sporting activities, cricket is primed for a fresh start.

“Due to COVID19 outbreak last year, we were unlucky,” SACF chairman told Arab News. “We started in August after the situation improved, and since then, we have been very busy with the setting up of many programs, with several deals and MoUs signed with the governmental, semi-governmental and non-governmental entities.”

Those steps are set to be game-changers in raising cricket’s profile among Saudis and expatriates alike.

“We signed a deal with the Sports for All Federation (SFA) to launch 4 programs and we started with the National Cricket Championship,” Prince Saud said. “It is the biggest ever cricket tournament in the history of Saudi Arabia. We have more than 7,000 players and 360 teams taking part in the mega-competition played at over a hundred grounds across 11 cities in the Kingdom.”

The in production of this competition brought competitive cricket action to Riyadh, Dammam, Jubail, Jeddah, Madinah, Yanbu, Tabuk, Abha, Jazan, Qassim and Najran.

In the first match week of the National Cricket Championship, 107 matches took place between 214 teams, while in the second week 85 matches were played between 170 teams. The third week saw 113 matches were played between 226 teams, the fourth and latest match-day week of action, completed on March 26, witnessed a new record of 144 matches contested between 288 teams, and 5,085 players.

Crucially, other community level initiatives have been established.

“We have three other programs,” Prince Saud added. “There will be a corporate cricket tournament launched in October and November, we have a cricket league for expatriate workers, and we have a social cricket program introduced in various cities. Throughout the year, we are planning to have 20,000 participants taking part in these programs in 2021.”

These programs 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. 

Prince Saud is keen to attract Saudi youth to cricket through more school activities and community programs.

“One of our biggest plans is to have a proper infrastructure for the game, since we don’t have it today,” Prince Saud said. “We are planning to have cricket academies, more grounds, better facilities with entertainment and other services around them to attract Saudi as well as foreign youth to the game.

“One of our biggest objectives is to bring better quality of life for expatriates working here. We have about eight million people from Asian countries where cricket is the most popular game, places such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,” he added.




Prince Saud said the SACF programs are part of the Kingdom’s mission to promote a healthy and active lifestyle under the Saudi Vision 2030’s Quality of Life program. (AN Photo)

The chairman also revealed that the SACF was one of the first federations invited to establish a presence at the new city of NEOM, where cricket facilities are being planned to cater to almost 35,000 people working there.

While cricket has long been played among country’s South Asian communities, with several local competitions established over the last few decades, a higher level of coordination with the federation can be expected now, with Prince Saud revealing that the SACF are planning programs involving embassies and corporations that have significant numbers of employees who take part in domestic cricket matches.

The SACF’s plans, however, go well beyond community level participation. Ultimately, the aim is to produce competitive Saudi Arabian national teams.

“We are currently 28th out of 105 countries in the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 global rankings, which is good,” said Prince Saud. “We became an ICC member in 2003 and worked our way up to this rank. Now we are signing up with qualified coaches and advisors for us to become an even better team.”

The coronavirus crisis may have halted all sporting activities for a year, but Prince Saud insists that things will change once a sense of normalcy returns.

“Because of the pandemic, schools were closed and running online classes, but as soon as the situation improves and schools reopen, we will have a full program of tournaments between schools all over the Kingdom, as well as international participation,” he said.

The right people will be hired and trusted to take the game forward.

“We are talking to coaches and legends of the game, and we will have them qualify and improve coaches in domestic cricket and help at the national level,” Prince Saud outlined.

The long-term aim is for Saudi Arabian cricket teams to compete professionally at regional and international competitions, as well as to attract some of the world’s finest cricketers to the Kingdom.

“We are planning to have some competitions within the GCC,” said Prince Saud. “Because of pandemic we may have only one or two competitions to play abroad, but once we have established a solid infrastructure in the Kingdom, we will look to host big tournaments and leagues from franchises of other major competitions.”    

Such long-term thinking will no doubt play a major part in raising cricket’s popularity among a new demographic in Saudi Arabia, as well as continuing to engage the game’s established audience.

The message from the SACF is clear; cricket is open for business, and everyone is welcome.


5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble
Updated 16 May 2021

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble
  • Al-Hilal remain in pole position despite draw; Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad fading; relegation battle hotting up

It was another action-packed weekend in the Saudi Pro League as the season draws close to the end. There were thrilling clashes, dropped points and shocking defeats. Most teams have just three games remaining, but there is still plenty to play for at both ends of the table. Here are five things we learned from the latest action.

1. Al-Shabab are spent

There seems to be no other way to say it. The team, vibrant and full of attacking ideas just a few weeks ago, seemed set for the title. But you cannot lose four out of five games at this stage of the season and still expect to get your hands on the trophy. They are now four points behind leaders Al-Hilal with a far inferior goal difference and there does not seem to be any way back. 

The 5-1 loss to Al-Hilal last week could have been written off as an aberration, especially as a red card had a major effect. But to lose 4-3 to Al-Ettifaq on Friday suggests that there is no way back even with what seems to be a gentle run-in. It was not a bad performance, but it was not the performance of champions.

It started well though. Former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo had the Riyadh club 2-0 up by the midway point of the first half and all was looking good, but then it all went wrong.

There was no secret about the defeat, no turning point: Al-Shabab missed chances and then made mistakes at the back. Coach Carlos Inarejos lamented his team’s luck, and while the young Spaniard did have a point, losing four out of five when the trophy is in sight is not just about luck. 

2. Wonder goal trips up Al-Hilal but champs still on course

Jose Morais’s first game on the sidelines as boss of Al-Hilal was something of a disappointment. Had the champions defeated Al-Batin — a team fighting relegation that had picked up just two points from the previous six games — instead of drawing 1-1, the players would have been close enough to the trophy to see their reflection. 

Al-Hilal took the lead thanks to another fine example of finishing from the league’s leading goal-scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, a wonderful rising volley. But that was nothing compared to Mohammed Rayhi’s strike on the half-hour. 

The Dutch attacker picked up the ball inside his own half as Al-Batin counterattacked, ran to the edge of the Al-Hilal area and unleashed an unstoppable shot. You will not see a better goal all season. It looks like being a significant strike at both ends of the table has not only slowed down Al-Hilal’s march to the title, but could end up saving Al-Batin.

Al-Hilal had a number of chances to win the game, but it was fitting that these were wasted. Rayhi did not deserve to be on the losing side after what he did. Still, the champs are four points clear and looking good.

3. Relegation battle hotting up

Al-Ain became the first team to be relegated this season, though this had been coming for a while. As a newly promoted team, they had started the season with four straight defeats, and while there were occasional rallies, it always looked doomed.

However, others at the bottom are putting up more of a fight. Al-Batin did their survival chances no harm by picking up a point against Al-Hilal, and after eight successive defeats in all competitions, Al-Wehda finally returned to winning ways with an impressive 3-2 win at Al-Fateh.

There is often one team that comes back almost from the dead, and this season it is Damac. Coming off the back of three wins and two draws from the previous five games, the clash against Al-Ittihad was a big one, and it shows how much improved the team are that they were disappointed to draw 1-1.

4. Al-Ittihad in danger of missing out on Asia

The Tigers should be thankful that they have rallied after a slow start to even think about being in the title race, but that dream is surely over. The 1-1 draw with an in-form Damac means they are now five points behind Al-Hilal. More importantly, it means Al-Ittihad have slipped into fourth place behind Al-Taawoun on goal difference.

The focus is now on getting back into the top three and clinching a place in the 2022 AFC Champions League. The Jeddah club have a game in hand over Al-Taawoun and a decent run-in, but with just one win in the last five games, they need to get their house in order and not squander the hard work of recent weeks. 

5. Al-Ahli breathe sigh of relief

It was perhaps fitting that this 1-0 win over Al-Qadisiyah was settled by a second-half penalty from (who else?) Omar Al-Somah. It was a forgettable game but a big result. Officials at Al-Ahli had been talking of the need just to get a win, however possible, to end a seven-game losing streak.

There have been rumors that the stay in Saudi Arabia of recently appointed coach Laurentiu Regencampf was going to be a short one, and while the win does not mean that the Romanian is safe or that all is now well in the green corner of Jeddah, it does mean that perhaps a corner has been turned. At least the narrative has changed, for now.


Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics
Updated 16 May 2021

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics
  • Ali Al-Khadrawi’s training will be overseen by the Saudi Table Tennis Federation

Saudi Arabia’s top table tennis player Ali Al-Khadrawi is set for a third and final training camp ahead of his participation in the Tokyo Olympics in July, the Arabic sports daily Arriyadiyah has reported.

With Tokyo 2020 approaching fast, the last stage of his preparation will be approved in the coming days then overseen by the Saudi Table Tennis Federation in the weeks that follow.

Al-Khadrawi’s first training took place in Al-Ahsa region, where he was joined by other members of the Saudi national table tennis team. The second phase was completed last Tuesday in Dammam.

The third stage of his preparation is expected to be abroad, with the place and time to be announced on Tuesday.


Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
Updated 15 May 2021

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
  • Djokovic and Nadal last played in the 2020 French Open final, which the Spaniard won
  • Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them

ROME: World number one Novak Djokovic on Saturday battled past Italian Lorenzo Sonego to set up a clash with nine-time winner Rafael Nadal for the sixth time in the Italian Open final.
Defending champion Djokovic won through 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 in 2hr 44min against the 33rd-ranked Italian after second seed Nadal earlier swept past American Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4.
Djokovic had earlier survived a three-set battle with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in their rain-delayed quarter-finals.
The five-time Rome winner had been trailing 6-4, 2-1 when the tie was halted overnight.
But he came back to win through 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 after 3hr 16min.
Djokovic and Nadal, who will be facing each other for the 57th time, last played in the 2020 French Open final which the Spaniard won.
The pair have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them while Nadal leads their head-to-head in finals in the Italian capital 3-2.
Djokovic had two match points in the 12th game of the second set of his semifinal before Sonego forced a third set to the delight of the home crowd in the Foro Italico.
The Serb saved three break points in the first game of the third set, coming back from 0-40 before powering toward his 11th Rome final
“I think I bounced back very well after the second set and 0-40, maybe if he started with a break up in the third it would be different,” said Djokovic.
“I’ve only myself to blame for not closing the match in the second set, I could have and should have.
“First of all I need to recover. I don’t have much time but hopefully I’ll have fresh legs necessary to have against Rafa.”
Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them with Djokovic leading their overall head-to-head 29-27.
Nadal is looking to equal Djokovic’s record of 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles in his 12th Rome final.


Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
Updated 15 May 2021

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
  • After losing four finals, Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition
  • The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy

LONDON: Youri Tielemans was preparing for the FA Cup final on Saturday when he received a text message with a clear instruction: Aim for the top corner.
When the ball landed at the Leicester midfielder’s feet, 63 minutes into the 140th final, a powerful shot from 30 meters was aimed just where he had been advised.
It was a sensational way to win the FA Cup for the first time in Leicester’s 137-year history, 1-0 against Champions League finalist Chelsea.
Even sweeter than the strike was Leicester being able to celebrate in front of its own fans as Wembley Stadium hosted England’s biggest crowd — more than 20,000 who tested negative for the coronavirus — in 14 months.
“Wow, what a finish,” Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said. “I didn’t dare to celebrate because there’s always VAR.”
Not that time. Instead, the video assistant review came to Leicester’s rescue in the 89th minute to prevent Wes Morgan from a moment of heartache.
The 37-year-old club captain had been on the pitch for only seven minutes when he accidentally deflected in former teammate Ben Chilwell’s cross. But one of those marginal offsides that so irritate players and fans was detected and the roars of Leicester fans were even louder than the moment Tielemans scored.
After losing four finals — the first in 1949 at the old Wembley — Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition. The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy.
Players — such as Chelsea duo Chilwell and N’Golo Kante — have left since that improbable 5,000-1 title triumph but Morgan and matchday captain Schmeichel are still there to celebrate again, this time in a moment tinged with sadness.
Inside the jerseys at Wembley were photos of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club’s Thai owner until he died in 2018 when his helicopter crashed in flames next to King Power Stadium.
“He is always with us, Kun Vichai,” said Schmeichel before handing the FA Cup on the field to Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who now runs the club.
Also in tribute to Vichai was a banner covering seats in the closed third tier at Wembley, with his quote, “Our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
In a game of few chances, Thiago Silva’s slack pass allowed Leicester to score. Ayoze Pérez intercepted the clearance and Luke Thomas passed across to the unmarked Tielemans to drive forward before striking from 30 yards into the top corner.
Saves from Schmeichel as much as VAR helped to preserve the lead; he used one hand to push Chilwell’s shot onto the post in the 78th and blocked Mason Mount’s volley in the 87th.
“I’ve dreamed of this since I was a child,” Schmeichel said. “The performance today — the grit and determination — I’m so proud of everyone.”
It’s far from season over for Leicester. There’s another match against Chelsea to come on Tuesday which could clinch Champions League qualification for the second time ever. Sitting third, Leicester holds a two-point lead over Chelsea.
“Today we enjoy, and tomorrow we dust ourselves down and can’t really think about this anymore,” Schmeichel said. “Chelsea are a top-class side and are going to want revenge.”
The west London club has lost consecutive FA Cup finals, with Thomas Tuchel failing just as Frank Lampard did. But Tuchel can still win the biggest prize in club football against Manchester City in the Champions League final on May 29 in Porto.
“We are disappointed and not angry with our performance,” Tuchel said.
Chelsea was a key early stop in Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers’ coaching career, with the youth team around 15 years ago. While Rodgers has won trophies in Scotland with Celtic, he fell short in English football with Watford, Swansea and Liverpool until Saturday. Now, for the first time since Harry Redknapp with Portsmouth in 2008, a British manager has picked up the FA Cup.
“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” Rodgers said. “The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today we can go and win. What a day for everyone involved with Leicester.”

ACTIVISM
Chelsea and Leicester took a knee before kickoff, which has been a feature of games in England since June as part of calls to eradicate racial injustice in society following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But there was some booing by fans against the anti-racism gesture that was largely drowned out by applause and cheers.
In the post-match celebrations, Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana were wrapped in a Palestinian flag amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza.

PREMIER LEAGUE
Leeds is on for a top-half finish in its first season back in the Premier League after 16 years. A 4-0 victory over Burnley was started by Mateusz Klich curling in the opener before halftime, followed in the second half by Jack Harrison and Rodrigo’s double. Fulham, one the three sides already relegated, lost at Southampton 3-1.


Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
Updated 15 May 2021

Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
  • Schedule of payments for $2m owed to Serbian striker ensures Jeddah club will not face FIFA sanctions

RIYADH: Saudi Pro League club Al-Ittihad has reached a settlement with former striker Aleksandar Pesic, with the club set to schedule a payment plan of $2 million owed to the player, Arabic language sports daily Arriyadiyah has reported.

The 28-year-old Serbian, who left the club in 2020, filed a formal complaint with FIFA calling for overdue fees to be paid.

According to Arriyadiyah’s sources, the agreement between the two parties is final, ensuring that the Jeddah club will not be hit with sanctions by FIFA.

The first of the player payments is due in the coming months.

Al-Ittihad signed Pesic in July 2018 on a three-year contract, before sending him to South Korean club FC Seoul on loan for 18 months at the beginning of 2019. The player then moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv on free transfer last year.