When Saad Khan Janjua—CEO of the Singapore Cricket Association (SCA)—speaks, people listen.
It’s not because his name comes with an air of gravitas.
It’s not because of his towering presence and broad shoulders.
It’s not because of a beard that betrays a unique and endearing wisdom.
It’s because Saad cares.
January 29th 2015: A tall strapping all-rounder, armed with a heavy ball and the ability to give the Kookaburra a whack, is wearing the captain’s armband. His beard is still a few years away at this point.
He walks in to bat with Singapore needing 50 off 26 to stay in contention for a place in the final qualifying round of the 2016 World T20.
The behemoth faces 17 of those 26 balls. He thumps four 6s.
But it’s not enough.
Singapore can only muster 138 in response to Saudi Arabia’s 146. Singapore has a 2-2 win-loss record, while table-toppers Kuwait is 4 for 4.
Both teams have one game left. However, Singapore’s last game against Malaysia will be a dead rubber.
Saad bhai decides not to play, passing the baton to Chetan Suryawanshi, who goes on to skipper Singapore for the next 4 years.
Saad hangs up his boots, somewhat unfulfilled yet deservedly proud.
The day before the biggest day ever
Saad Janjua, the CEO, has a lot on his plate. Everyone either wants to or needs to talk to him. He often starts multiple conversations at a time, tuning in to one, pausing it, and tuning in to another before pausing that.
However, he returns to all of them, wrapping things up with an effortless efficiency unique to natural-born leaders. You’ll never leave a conversation with Saad feeling unsatisfied or neglected.
After a doubleheader Saturday at the T20 World Cup Asia Finals, he agrees to sit down with me for a conversation about Singapore Cricket.
The only thing is that he is understandably busy, so we’ll have to do it on a drive from the Singapore Indian Association (SIA) ground to the player’s hotel. Two other members of the media team will be joining us.
At the beginning of the drive, we’re just four cricket fans in a car. We talk about players we’ve enjoyed watching throughout the tournament, the pleasantly surprising fielding from all teams, and even the recent World Cup Final.
The conversation then shifts to his time as skipper of the national team.
“You see this dream to play in the World Cup, I was carrying the dream as a player. Now I carry this same dream as a CEO and I want this dream to come true.”
It’s back of a length. It’s an arm ball and it’s quick. Dipendra Singh Airee goes back, but it’s fuller than he thought. The Vinoth Bhaskaran delivery crashes into leg stump.
Nepal all out for 108.
Singapore has just progressed to the main qualifying round of the T20 World Cup!
The players rush in. Some fall to their knees before joining in the celebrations.
Skipper Amjad Mahboob rushes into the middle and then he turns away. He starts sprinting towards the boundary.
What’s he doing? Where’s he going?
He makes a beeline for Saad bhai and leaps into his arms.
Saad catches him with one arm.
…Of course he does.
The dream -- Saad’s dream, Singapore’s dream -- has come true.
The bond shared between Saad and Amjad is not your typical player-administrator relationship. Amjad played under Saad at the last qualifying event in 2015.
“He’s like an elder brother for me. I would like to thank him because he has taught me a lot of things. I used to play with a tennis ball. When I started cricket in Singapore, I didn’t know how to bowl swing….3-4 years ago I would ask Saad Bhai where to bowl. He taught me a lot of things. He’s like a role model to me.”
Amjad was quick to highlight the importance of preparation prior to the tournament and how it was a challenge. Saad Janjua expanded on these thoughts.
“It is not easy for any association or any sports organization to prepare their national team for an international tournament if they don’t have proper facilities. We have an interim facility, which is the SIA. It took us a lot of time and effort to uplift this facility, so we could make it available for our national players, and so we could host this tournament.”
The efforts to secure the interim home of Singapore Cricket have indeed paid off.
Prior to the Asia Finals, the ground at the SIA played host to the Elite Player Series (EPS). Operating within an MOU with the Ugandan Cricket Association, the EPS was contested between three teams consisting of current Singaporean cricketers, Singaporean youth, and a selection of overseas players such as Ugandan Skipper, Roger Mukasa. Each team played a total of six matches; three against each of the other two teams.
This was followed by fifteen T20 games against a Pakistan Gladiators team. You read that right: 15!
It is, therefore, not entirely surprising that Singapore ended the tournament as the only undefeated team. That they deserve to qualify is an indisputable fact, and a result of hard work and extensive preparation.
We’ve been driving for 15 minutes. Saad bhai drives around the block and down the smooth roads of Singapore. The four of us are nerding out on all things emerging cricket and it wouldn’t feel right to cut this conversation short.
I’ve only been in town for three days, yet I feel emotionally invested in Singapore’s cricketing fortunes. I had to ask Mr.Janjua about the importance of getting the local Chinese and Malay community involved.
“I believe in localization. We need to have local people playing the game. When Singapore was growing, we wanted foreign workers to build the buildings. We wanted to have foreign talent to come here and not just work here, but transfer their knowledge so local people could also learn from them.”
As the three of us hang on his every word, Saad looks to Singapore’s opponents on Sunday for inspiration.
“When Nepal was a kingdom, the only heroes were kings and queens. When Paras [Khadka] and Shakti [Gauchan] transformed into stars by winning tournaments, they became heroes. Now, if Paras and Sandeep (Lamichanne] go to the airport or to the shopping mall, it is very difficult for them to roam around.”
We get to the player’s hotel. The half-an-hour drive felt like five minutes. Just before we exit the car, the bearded oracle leaves us with one final gem.
“In Pakistan, after Imran Khan won the World Cup, people started naming their kids Imran, Wasim, and Waqar. They were following their heroes. Once you create heroes, people will follow them.”
If Singapore can finish in the top 6 at the main qualifiers, they could make it to the World Cup itself!
If they make it to the World Cup, there’s a chance of greater government funding and greater participation from the Chinese and Malay communities.
For all we know, Chinese and Malay parents may start naming their children Vinoth, Amjad, or even Saad.
Main photo: Sanketa Anand