The first World Cup Challenge League in Malaysia presented the participating sides with yet another opportunity to play consequential Twenty20 international (T20I) cricket in and around the tournament. Match results would count towards points in the new ICC Men’s T20I Team Rankings.

Vanuatu took the opportunity to play hosts Malaysia in a five-match bilateral series. Both sides would have been looking to redeem themselves after finishing last and second last respectively in the Challenge League.

Vanuatu fielded virtually the same side from the Challenge League in this series, no doubt taking into consideration the cost of flying replacement players to Malaysia. The only significant change in the starting line up was the inclusion of Jamal Vira behind the stumps in place of forty-four year old Vanuatu Cricket CEO, Shane Deitz.

Malaysia rang in the changes after winning only one of their five Challenge League matches. U-19 Captain Vijay Unni found a place in the squad alongside fellow youngsters Zubaidi Zulfikie and Ainool Haqqiem. Former captain Anwar Arudin also made a return to the team despite a lean patch dating back to the June 2019 T20I tri-series with Maldives and Thailand.

Nazril Rahman, Syed Aziz, Pavandeep Singh, and Virandeep Singh were the only four players to keep their spots from Challenge League squad, the latter taking over the captaincy from Ahmed Faiz.

Malaysia is a young team in transition (or perhaps flux). The South East Asians have also consistently underperformed in international tournaments since their 2017 World Cricket League Division 3 outing in Uganda. Note this has been discussed in some detail in our Emerging Cricket podcast last week. There is no shortage of talent or depth across the squad. Players have been further incentivized with national contracts this year.

For their part, Vanuatu has been inconsistently brilliant. Much appears to depend on the exploits of Patrick Matautaava, who on his day can tear any bowling attack apart with his big hitting. Vanuatu’s off-spinning trio of Jelany Chilia, Simpson Obed, and Andrew Mansale are a difficult prospect on wickets that provide grip and assistance.

Two years ago Malaysia would have been odds-on favorites in such a series. That is not the case today.

So how did the series play out?

Match 1: Vanuatu 151/5 beat Malaysia 134/9 by 17 runs

Vanuatu won the toss and elected to bat. Opener Joshua Rasu scored 74 off 54 with four sixes to take the islanders to a healthy total. Malaysia lost Aziz, Arudin, Virandeep, and Sharvin Muniandy in the first twelve overs, and despite a fluent 33 off 25 by newcomer Mohamed Arief, could only score 134 in reply. Nalin Nipiko finished with 4/21 off 4, taking the prize wickets of both Malaysian openers.  

Match 2: Vanuatu 188/6 beat Malaysia 137/7 by 51 runs

It was Patrick Matautaava’s day on a good Kinrara deck; a brutal knock of 103 off 52 deliveries with 7 towering sixes taking Vanuatu to a mammoth total. Despite starts for Virandeep (34 off 36), Ainool Hafizs (21 off 22), and Muniandy (28 off 22), none of the Malaysians were able to break the shackles. Vanuatu’s off-spinners Jelany Chilia (1/21) and Simpson Obed (3/23) finished with miserly figures, rounding off a fine performance from the islanders.  

Match 3: Malaysia 134/8 beat Vanuatu 108 all out by 26 runs

After limping to another sub-par total, left-arm spinner Pavandeep Singh (3/12 off 3.1) and left-arm pacer Muhammad Wafiq (3/10 off 4) bowled superlative spells to take Malaysia to a narrow victory in a low scoring encounter. Vanuatu slumped from 3/70 to 108 all out courtesy Singh and Wafiq, with nobody really able to support Nalin Nipiko (42 off 30 and 3/22 off 4) in a regulation chase. This was a moral boosting win for the young Malaysians, keeping them in the hunt for an improbable series win.

Match 4: Malaysia 144/7 lost to Vanuatu 145/4 off 19.1 by 6 wickets

Malaysia needed to win this one in order to stay in contention for the series. It was not to be. After winning the toss and electing to bat, the Malaysians slumped to 55/4 in the 11th over. An unbeaten 52 off 31 from Mohamed Arief and solid run-a-ball knock from Virandeep Singh took Malaysia to a defendable total. Medium-pacer Apolinaire Stephen was the pick of the bowlers with 2/15 off 4 overs.

Any hope of a Malaysian upset was extinguished by a 84 run open partnership between Rasu and captain Andrew Mansale. Rasu scored his second half-century (50 off 40 balls) of the series. Nalin Nipiko shepherded Vanuatu over the finish line with an unbeaten 23 off 22 balls.

Match 5: Malaysia 206/5 beat Vanuatu 184/9 by 22 runs

Alas Malaysia’s trump card Syed Mubarak Aziz struck form much too late. His stroke-filled 87 off 50 balls coupled with Mohamed Arief’s 29 off 17 balls took the Malaysians to a mammoth total. Vanuatu did not give up hope. Matautaava struck a belligerent 66 off 29 balls inside the first ten overs, but once he was out, Pavandeep Singh returned to stifle the middle order and bowl Vanuatu out of the game.

Verdict:

This was a closely fought series with some exceptional performances from the usual suspects.

Patrick Matautaava showed just what he is capable of with the bat and deserves a chance in the T20I franchise scene somewhere. Vanuatu will also be pleased to see Nalin Nipiko take wickets and score runs consistently after many years of grade cricket in Melbourne. Joshua Rasu’s form proved that he is a more than competent replacement for long time opener Jono Dunn.

The Malaysian side can take heart from the performances of its young leaders. At 20 years of age, Syed Aziz and Virandeep Singh are exceptional talents with almost diametrically opposed skills. When they perform, Malaysia do well, and one hopes they remain in the system as they mature in age and gain experience. 31-year old Mohamed Arief  averaged 39.75 with the bat in his first tournament for Malaysia, and is a middle order shoo-in for upcoming fixtures. Finally, with the ball, it was heartening to see young left-arm pacer Muhammad Wafiq generating awkward bounce and angles at pace throughout the tournament.

Most importantly, the advent of T20I status clearly brings enough meaning each fixture for associate countries to invest resources in bilateral series where possible. This is a hugely positive development for emerging cricket and must remain, even if, at any point in the future, it enables a side to break the Associate ceiling and challenge the big guns in the shortest version of the game.

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