“Williams nearly made the game Zimbabwe’s but Singapore sprung a surprise nobody expected.”
This was the subhead published by a major cricket website after Singapore defeated Zimbabwe in a thrilling encounter on Sunday night. Singaporean fans and those who have followed them in the recent past were certainly amused, but not the least bit surprised that another heavyweight had been laid to waste by the men in black and red.
The South East Asian nation had defeated Canada a mere 72 hours earlier at the Challenge League Group A in Kuala Lumpur. More famously, they demolished Nepal by 82 runs in a de facto final at the T20 World Cup Asia Finals to book their spot at the main qualifying event to be held in Dubai later this month.
But how did they suddenly get so good? And how are they slaying so many giants?
Smart and extensive preparation
Make no mistake; there is nothing sudden about Singapore’s rise. They began preparing for July’s Asia Finals way back in February with the Elite Player Series (EPS). Operating within an MOU with the Uganda Cricket Association, the EPS featured three teams composed of current Singaporean players, Singaporean youth, and international players such as Ugandan skipper Roger Mukasa, Charles Waiswa, Kenneth Waiswa, a selection of uncapped Zimbabwean cricketers, and Malaysian brothers Virandeep and Pavandeep Singh.
This was followed by 15 T20 games against a Pakistan Gladiators squad, which featured a selection of Pakistani domestic and regional cricketers. They were flown in and accommodated for an entire month in order for Singapore to prepare for Qatar and Kuwait—two of their four opponents at the Asia finals—whose teams are stacked with players that have also played either regional or domestic cricket in Pakistan.
Singapore only managed to win 3 out of 13 games that produced a result. However, at the end of it all, they knew their ideal team combination, had given their youngsters a bridge between age group and senior cricket and unearthed some T20 specialists, who weren’t regular members of the national set-up before then.
A new look top order
One of the most interesting changes in team combination to come out of the EPS and the games against the Pakistan Gladiators was the make-up of the top order. Prior to the T20 season, former U19 star Rohan Rangarajan had been shuffled around the Singaporean batting order in 50-over cricket. However, he sealed his opening berth by finishing as the top run-scorer in the T20 leg of the EPS and second-highest run-scorer in the 50-over leg.
In T20 cricket, he has been partnered by Surendran Chadramohan, who registered 3 half-centuries against the Gladiators to build on his modest returns at the Eastern Sub Regional Qualifiers in October 2018. The tall swashbuckler batted in the top 3 for the first 4 games of the challenge league before being pushed down to 6 in order to add some meat to a soft Singaporean middle-order. The move paid off as he scored a run-a-ball 67.
Rounding off the top 3 was the man himself, Singapore-born Western Australian Tim David, whose father played for Singapore before the family moved to Perth in 1998, partially a reaction to the Asian financial crisis. There was always a line of communication open between him and Singapore’s administrators.
However, even after bringing him on board, Singapore’s leadership group had to decide how, if at all, he would fit into the starting XI. His early days in Singapore saw him get off to a lot of quick starts without quite pushing on. And then he exploded, scoring a Man of the Match 77 against Nepal followed by four consecutive fifty-plus scores in the Challenge League.
Despite a modest series against the Gladiators, Tim was able to shake off the rust and find a role in the team. He even stood in as captain for one game against Nepal in the ongoing tri-series.
In addition to the 20-year-old Rohan, Singapore’s youth pipelines have produced a trio of quick 19-year-old seamers—Janak Prakash, Aryaman Uchil, and Sidhant Singh—who can bat in the lower-middle order, and have already enjoyed success at the highest level.
Janak is widely regarded as the most accomplished of the three, while Aryaman finished as the leading wicket-taker from any side at the Challenge League, and Sidhant might just be the quickest of the lot. It was Janak and Sidhant—along with skipper and veteran Amjad Mahboob—who pulled of a stunning death overs heist to defend 23 off the last 3 overs against Zimbabwe.
20-year-old left-arm spinner Aahan Achar is also pushing the senior trio of Anantha Krishna, Selladore Vijaykumar, and Vinoth Bhaskaran for a spot in the team, although he still has some way to go.
Having said that, the first four names have already made contributions to their current run of success, and if early days are any indication, they can help Singapore overcome a string of near-misses that have plagued them over the years.
They’ve finished 3rd in three consecutive WCL 3 tournaments narrowly missing out on promotion to Division 2. They also lost a pair of tight games to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the 2015 ACC Twenty20 Cup, then the equivalent of the Asia regional finals.
However, three historic victories in the last 10 weeks have allowed them to put the ghosts of almosts to bed. With their eyes set on the World Cup, perhaps this is Singapore’s chance to haunt the dreams of more supposed “favourites.”