Report by Dr A.R.H. Warley
Messrs Seabrook, Challis, Logue, Walters, Lockwood, Warley, Chamberlin, Crisp, Hedley-Lewis and Choyce assembled at Heathrow in the early hours of 7 March to board a flight to Muscat for the 3rd MCC GS tour of Oman.
Harbottle and Purdue were already there and Sears and Mr and Mrs Sidath Wettimuny joined us from the Southern Hemisphere to complete a tour party of 14 plus 1.
As has become the custom, the party was billeted at the Crowne Plaza, the oldest hotel in Muscat and occupying a prime position on a promontory with a view north up the coast of Oman.
The sport began with a match against Ghala Golf Club, which has recently undergone the transformation from sand to grass.
The process, underway when MCC GS first toured in 2012, and partially completed in 2014, has now been finished with the completion of a new clubhouse.
Individual ties were closely fought but the overall match ended in a comfortable victory for the home side followed by a splendid meal and entreaties for a return fixture.
The following day saw us at the Golf Club formerly known as The Wave, now renamed Al Mouj. The course was designed by Greg Norman who has created a fabulous, links type course on this narrow strip of land.
Unfortunately, not content with large, fast greens with subtle borrows, his use of the one natural resource in unlimited supply (sand) as an extra line of defence proved the undoing of most of the touring party and the match was again lost.
Al Mouj is a large, commercial operation but we were treated to a fantastic welcome and a most enjoyable match played in the best spirit.
On previous tours the possibility of a night in the desert had been discussed. As a result the management organised a trip to the Desert Nights Camp some 4 hours to the south of Muscat.
On the way out, we stopped at a Wadi Shab. A steep-sided valley with anything between a torrent and a tiny stream in its floor, depending on how recently it has rained. We were told of a 20 min walk to a spectacular waterfall, which started by crossing the Wadi by boat.
As the walk progressed and repeated enquiries of returning walkers as to ‘…how far still to go?….’ were being answered with ‘….a good 30 mins…’ it became apparent that our drivers (who themselves had declined to accompany the party) had significantly overestimated the MCC party’s walking speed in 100F heat.
A number turned back but many battled on for an hour or more to be rewarded with a swim in a small pool. One of the farmers in the party pressed on further, either seeking the source of the Nile or a front view of an Italian bikini, before returning just as our leader was realising that there would be few volunteers for a search party.
We then headed south for another 2 hours in our fleet of Toyotas towards the town of Sur - site of Oman’s main gas terminal where liquid gas (at -326C) is loaded on to vast tankers - before heading east into the desert proper and our camp.
As soon as we turned into the desert, our drivers started to behave as if they were in an audition for Top Gear, driving their vehicles in thrilling convoy across sand dunes at 60 mph.
We witnessed the sun setting over the desert and enjoyed a splendid meal provided by the all-Sri Lankan staff who were very excited to recognise Sidath and for whom they produced a sumptuous curry for breakfast the following morning.
A two and half hour return trip to Muscat and the much-anticipated fixture against Muscat Hills Golf Club. Built in 2009, Muscat Hills is a well-established course that is fearsome when there is no wind. We set off in a force 4 and although the first pair won the first hole they flattered to deceive and the whole team went down again.
Several of our previous hosts had advised that we were in for an evening of ‘serious’ hospitality after the match at the home of Shah Sidhu, captain of Muscat Hills and it is conceivable that this prospect might have weighed heavily on a number of the MCC members’ minds.
Shah had thoughtfully arranged for the England v Scotland matched to be streamed to his giant TV, and those relishing a long night of revelry were not disappointed. Shah had even asked the bus driver to come an hour later than originally intended to ensure that we could not escape. What ‘goes on tour, stays on tour’ and in the general euphoria, things perhaps did get slightly out of hand.
However even an enticing, if scarcely credible, proposition to the oldest member of the party failed to derail the smooth progress of the tour. One can only speculate as to what might have been if the tour had coincided with the Ireland match. Sunday morning saw the party on parade for an early trip out for net practice.
The ground at Al-Amerat (approx. 45 mins inland from Muscat) is a magnificent arena with two full sized cricket grounds. A large pavilion and indoor cricket school is under construction and Al-Amerat seems destined to be a popular destination for British cricketers seeking winter cricket. MCC were greeted by enthusiastic ground staff who provided all necessary equipment.
If they were disappointed by the absence of obvious ability to use it, they hid it well. Later that evening we were entertained at Ras al Hamra Golf Club to a day/night golf match. Ras al Hamra is the oldest club in Oman and built originally by PDO (Petroleum Development Oman – the company responsible for oil production in Oman and in which Shell has a major shareholding) for their employees. It has recently undergone a major overhaul (including conversion from sand to grass) under the auspices of Graham Marsh and it is an absolute gem of a nine-hole course.
There are different tee positions on a number of the holes and different greens for a number of the others. The course has floodlights and we played the second nine holes under them, a first for most of the Tour party and a magical experience. MCC came second but, once again, we were royally entertained by the opposition who included the CEO of the PDO, Raoul Restucci - who must be the coolest CEO of a top company in the world. The following day was to be our cricket match against Mr Pankaj Khimji’s X1.
With the match not starting until 1630, we warmed up with nine holes at Al Mouj amongst ourselves before heading out to the cricket ground at Al-Amerat. Pankaj is a MCC member, Chair of Oman Cricket, and sits on the ICC. He has played (lavish) host to each of the previous tours.
Eleven of the fourteen members of the Tour party MCC took the field and managed to restrict the opposition to 175, a target that might have been predicted to be well within the reach of a team that included Sidath Wettimuny, former Sri Lanka Test batsman and the first Sri Lankan to score a century at Lord’s in a Test match, who opened the innings.
However, Sidath’s opening partner, the Hon Member for Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, had only two thoughts, his own survival and shielding Sidath from the strike. With 7 overs gone, MCC were some way behind the clock.
After inviting a former Oman National Team opening bowler to bowl a bit faster and then treating us to a couple of sumptuous drives on either side of the wicket, Sidath departed under the most bizarre of circumstances when the sole of one of his (new) shoes separated from the rest of it as he set off for a single.
Although there was some spirited hitting towards of the end of the innings MCC were never going to challenge the total and ended 25 runs short. Our opponents contained two MCC members in Pankaj and Paul Sheridan. Paul has been a great friend to, and an important part of, all three MCC tours to Oman and we are very grateful to him.
There followed a magnificent banquet at Pankaj’s house. Present also were Pankaj’s wife Akil and father, Kanaksi Khimji head of the Khimji business empire and close friend of The Sultan.
Aside from Pankaj and Paul, Kanaksi is the only other MCC member permanently resident in Oman. The British Ambassador, Jonathan Wilks attended the cricket match and the Sri Lankan Ambassador Mr K Pathmanathan was a guest at the dinner. A fantastic tour, conceived, organised and led with extraordinary efficiency and great charm by Tom Seabrook. It is hard to convey just what generous hospitality was shown to us.
Three of the matches were a shotgun start, meaning that all three courses were content to close for four and a half hours to allow 28 players to have it to themselves. None of the clubs had a problem recruiting to their team and the majority of our hosts stayed for the meal afterwards.
Any misgivings about the cricket match were rapidly dispelled and all agreed that it was a terrific thing to have done. It was a privilege for us all to have had Sidath Wettimuny and his wife Sharmini in the party.
Their quiet charm and modesty and the ease and frequency with which a smile lit up their faces played a significant part in an exceptionally happy and harmonious tour.
Our hosts would like to see us next year. That is probably unrealistic, but it is to be hoped that the MCC GS Oman Tour will be sustained because it is a marvellous golfing and cultural experience in a cricket-loving country.