Transition. Or perhaps more accurately, turmoil.
These words describe the pre-tournament fortunes of two of Asia’s four representatives at the ICC Men’s World Twenty20 Qualifier. A third, Singapore, is perhaps in the nascent stages of a new Golden Era.
By firm contrast, Oman’s Golden Era has well and truly begun. And it shows no signs of dissipating anytime soon.
2019 has been another groundbreaking year for Oman, a team often cited as the second success story to emerge from the previous World Cricket League (WCL). The Sultanate gained ODI status for the first time in April 2019, and won three of its first four ODIs against Scotland and Papua New Guinea in August. Earlier this month at home, Oman also accounted for Ireland, Netherlands, Nepal, and Hong Kong to finish unbeaten in the Pentangular T20 Series.
It is worth noting that these on-field triumphs have not happened overnight. The remarkable Khimji family and their patrons in the Omani royal family have been actively building the foundations for success for over fifteen years. Today all the key components for the continued growth of the sport – ample government funding, a world-class venue for hosting international cricket, an advanced High Performance program helmed by ex-Sri Lankan Test player Duleep Mendis, flourishing domestic leagues in three cities, and a promising Arab-Omani development program – are firmly in place.
The team itself is centred on a seasoned core of tactically astute veterans, a bevy of all-rounders, a varied, stifling spin bowling attack, and a tenacity – unparalleled in the Associate world I contend – that often sees them come from behind and prevail in tight, tense situations.
In and of itself, this combination of qualities makes Oman a difficult team to beat. In recent times, there has also been a concerted effort to address perceived weak areas. Whereas previously, there was an almost total reliance on spin squeeze runs and manufacture wickets, the new ball pairing of Kaleemullah and Bilal Khan are capable of blowing away opposition with pace, bounce, and swing when they get it right. The recent arrivals of Sandeep Goud and wicketkeeper Suraj Kumar add much needed spine to a batting line up prone to the odd, spectacular collapse.
So which Oman can we expect? And are Oman genuine tournament favourites or mere pretenders, capable of winning warm-up events but faltering when it matters?
Oman squad: Zeeshan Maqsood (captain), Aqib Ilyas (Vice-captain), Jatinder Singh, Suraj Kumar, Khawar Ali, Sandeep Goud, Muhammed Naseem Khushi, Mehran Khan, Khurram Nawaz Khan, Sufyan Mahmood, Syed Amir Kaleem, Jay Odedara, Ahmed Fayyaz Butt, Kaleemullah and Bilal Khan
Players to watch
I’m tempted to start with the stroke-making prowess of Aqib Ilyas and the searing pace of Oman’s opening bowlers. But I want to focus on what I see as the quiet fulcrum of Oman’s consistent success this year – their trio of spin-bowling all rounders – and their newly acquired wicketkeeper-batsmen.
From swashbuckling opener to all-rounder, and elder statesmen of team, Maqsood will be expected to anchor Oman’s batting through the middle overs, bowl a couple of overs to left-arm orthodox spin, and carry the team through periods of pressure. Although lots of responsibility rests of Maqsood’s shoulders, he appears to thrive on it. In Oman’s quest for ODI status this year, Maqsood finished with 163 runs at an average of 54.33 and took 6 wickets at an average of 23.00. Expect runs, wickets, and a whole lot of calm from Oman’s captain.
Khawar Ali is the second of the trio at Oman’s disposal. Opening the batting, Ali will be expected to rotate the strike and give stroke makers like Ilyas the license to go after the bowling. Ali also bowls accurate leg-spin in the middle overs, varying his pace and delivery with skill and strong execution. He has been in devastating form with the ball. A recent hat-trick against the Netherlands in which he accounted for Colin Ackermann and Roelof Van Der Merwe is testament to these match-winning abilities.
At 37, Kaleem is the oldest of the trio, but his contributions are far from stale. His left-handed batting lends variety to the batting line, and his left-arm orthodox can be unplayable on its day, as Nepal can attest to in the recent Pentangular series. Like Ali and Maqsood, Kaleem is a wily operator with years of experience in the Associate circuit and will likely bowl a fifth of Oman’s quota every game.
Kumar only made his debut in WCL 2 this year but has already staked his place as a vital cog in the side with a number of important innings. Against PNG in Aberdeen, for example, Kumar came to the crease with Oman at 136/6 off 33 overs chasing 207, and steered his side to a relatively comfortable victory with an unbeaten 35 off 46 balls. As a wicketkeeper who can bat, Kumar gives Oman the privilege of playing an extra all-rounder or bowler. His performances in the middle and lower-middle order will be crucial to Oman’s chances of eking out the close, grinding wins they have become known for.
Oman is unlikely to blast teams away with the bat, but expect them to restrict teams to sub-par totals even on the flat pitches of the Emirates.
The side is well prepared and likely confident coming off a recent run of success, and will also be amongst the most accustomed to the weather and conditions on offer.
The later squad struggles of Hong Kong and the UAE and Oman’s strong record against Ireland make it difficult to see them finish outside the top three in Group B. A second or first place finish is more than plausible.
Can Oman deal with the pressure of expectation? Only time will tell.
Possible first XI: Khawar Ali, Jatinder Singh, Aqib Ilyas, Zeeshan Maqsood (captain), Amir Kaleem, Khurram Nawaz, Sandeep Goud, Suraj Kumar (wk), Mohammad Nadeem, Kaleemullah, Bilal Khan.