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Oman's big chance to take a big step

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Oman_Cricket_World_Cup_qualifier_ICCParticipation in the upcoming ICC World Cricket League Division Two, to be hosted by Namibia from February 8-15, is yet another feather in Oman’s cap. However, the fast-rising Sultanate side will not be there just to make up the numbers. In fact, they will be the dark horse in what is expected to be a highly unpredictable six-team tournament, from which the top two will gain entry into the ten-team World Cup Qualifier, to be played in Zimbabwe in March.

Given the strides Oman have made in the past three years, their triumph at the World Cricket League Division Three in Uganda in May 2017, which enabled them to proceed to Division Two, did not come as a surprise. Under the guidance of former Sri Lankan captain Duleep Mendis, who has been serving as coach since 2013-14, Oman have attracted the attention of the cricketing world by leapfrogging many a historically established team on the Associate circuit.

Oman became an Affiliate member of the ICC in 2000, and an Associate member only in 2014. They came agonizingly close to playing ODI cricket as far back as 2006, when they qualified for the Asia Cup, to be hosted by Pakistan, on the basis of a creditable second-place finish at the 2004 Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy. To Oman’s misfortune, the Asia Cup was cancelled due to a hectic international schedule, and their ODI debut never saw the light of the day.

Oman’s first appearance at a World Cup qualifying tournament was at the ICC Trophy in 2005. After five defeats on the trot in the group stage, they pipped Uganda by six runs and – more tellingly – chased down 345 against the United States, who had played the Champions Trophy in 2004, to win by three wickets in the playoffs, thus finishing ninth out of 12 teams. The next edition in 2009 was a disappointment for Oman though, as they ended second from bottom.

2014 was bittersweet for Oman. Even though they were not part of the World Cup Qualifier early in the year, the ICC promoted them to Associate status in June. An indifferent outing at the WCL Division Four saw them relegated to Division Five, but a few months later, in January 2015, they won the ACC Twenty20 Cup to seal a berth in the 2015 World T20 Qualifier in Ireland and Scotland, a tournament that catapulted them into another league altogether.

A sixth-place finish in the 14-team tournament enabled Oman to not only qualify for their first ever top-level ICC event - the 2016 World Twenty20 in India – but also secure T20 international status for at least the next four years. The journey to qualification included memorable wins over Associate heavyweights Afghanistan and the Netherlands. Their greatest moment came in their very first World T20 match, when they dramatically upset Ireland by two wickets at Dharamsala.

Boosted by their successful ingress into international cricket, Oman went from strength to strength on the WCL scene in 2016. They finished second in Division Five, played in Jersey, and again in Division Four in the United States, losing the final to the hosts on both occasions, before winning the aforesaid Division Three title last year. Within a year, Oman sprung from the depths of Division Five to Division Two, and now find themselves on the cusp of further elevation.

Although it is the T20 format that has positioned them in the consciousness of the cricket fraternity, Oman has also caused a few stirs in the 50-over game against ODI teams. The United Arab Emirates, who are the only team in the WCL Division Two fray to hold ODI status and who are being regarded by many as favorites to win the title, have fallen prey to Oman twice in 50-over matches in the 2016-17 season – by 72 runs at Dubai and by 38 runs in Al Amarat.

Oman also upstaged the much-fancied Hong Kong by 2-1 in a three-match 50-over series in Dubai in December 2017, again debunking the highly elitist notion of ‘status’ from the ICC, which, truth be told, is increasingly proving to be an outdated concept, what with the narrowing gap between most teams beyond the full members’ club. Asia, in particular, has been at the forefront of the Associate revolution of late, and Oman’s unwavering surge is yet another example of the same.

Captained by their 40-year-old wicketkeeper Sultan Ahmed, Oman will not be weighed by lofty expectations to make the grade, unlike the UAE, who were part of the World Cup in 2015 and are the front-runners; Kenya, who are fighting to salvage their standing and recover their lost glory; Nepal, who forever have to satiate their fanatic supporters, or Namibia, who will have a point to prove in home conditions. Oman would do well to use this freedom to their advantage.

What also augurs well for Omani cricket is the establishment of the Oman Cricket Academy in late 2017 - another step in the right direction as the Oman Cricket Association looks to develop its infrastructure back home to ensure quality practice facilities for the national cricketers, as well as to nurture budding youngsters, especially among the Omani nationals. After all, a robust local cricketing culture is a prerequisite for any nation that aims to break into the big league.

A top-two finish in Namibia will provide Oman with the tantalizing prospect of facing the likes of the West Indies and Zimbabwe at the World Cup Qualifier. While playing in the World Cup might just remain a pipe dream for Oman for years to come, thanks to the closed-shop mentality of the ICC, their heartening progress could well be considered as a harbinger of greater things ahead.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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