Know Your Associates March 4, 2016

Low ranking, high hopes

Having beaten stronger Associate sides on the way to the World T20, Oman will be hoping to put one over a team or two

Oman beat Afghanistan by 40 runs in the ICC World T20 Qualifier last year © ICC/Donald MacLeod

The first four editions of the World Twenty20 Qualifier were, with a few exceptions, more or less formulaic. An early upset might have occurred here or there, such as wild-card entrant USA upending Scotland in the opening match in 2010, or Namibia doing the same on day one in 2012 to Ireland. However, by the time the knockout stage concluded, the usual suspects snapped up the berths for the main event.

That all changed in 2015 when Oman, at the time ranked 29th and in Division Five of the ICC World Cricket League, arrived in Scotland last July for the fifth edition of the qualifier. They proceeded to upset the natural order within Associate cricket to become the lowest-ranked team to qualify for a World Cup.

For that tournament, they called on the former England international Derek Pringle as a technical consultant to guide them on how to approach British conditions. Now for the World T20 in India they have again sought local tactical nous by hiring former India left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi as a specialist coach. It is a shrewd move for a team loaded with spinners, including three left-armers - Aamir Kaleem, Ajay Lalcheta and allrounder Zeeshan Maqsood.

Slingy Munis Ansari was on an island within an island at the qualifier as Oman's only consistent pace threat. However, the emergence of left-arm medium-pacer Bilal Khan in November came at a crucial time, and has added much needed balance to the attack and the squad as a whole.

After playing their eighth T20I at the Asia Cup qualifier in February, Oman finally entered the T20I rankings table at 17th. They sit well behind Ireland, Netherlands and Bangladesh, the other three teams in the opening-round Group A, to be played in Dharamsala. Consequently, expectations may be low on their World T20 debut. However, as Nepal demonstrated in 2014, it would be unwise to write off a debutant's chances of stealing a victory or two too soon.

Road to the World T20
Oman had a longer journey than every other team, requiring progression through an extra qualifying leg in regional competition. It started at the Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 Cup, a six-team round-robin tournament held in the UAE in January 2015.

Oman's bowling attack looks more balanced now that fast bowler Munis Ansari (in picture) is supported by medium-pacer Bilal Khan © ICC/Sportsfile

Wins over Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Maldives were offset by a loss to Singapore, building up to a must-win final-day showdown against an undefeated Kuwait. With a superior net run rate heading into the match, a win by any margin for Oman would ensure they won the tournament in a tiebreak. Chasing 150, Kuwait were 76 for 2 in the tenth over before Oman battled back behind Kaleem's 3 for 18, eventually holding on by 11 runs to book a ticket to the global qualifier in Ireland and Scotland.

At their only previous appearance in 2012, Oman went down 0-7 in in the group stage. In 2015, they started off with a tight seven-run loss to Kenya before running off three straight victories: over Canada (seven wickets), Netherlands (six wickets) and then a major stunner, over Afghanistan by 40 runs, to position themselves for a place in the knockout stage. History was made when they chased 149 with an over to spare in the playoffs against Namibia to book a ticket to India.

Since then, Oman have won three of their first ten official T20Is, beginning with a loss in the fifth-place playoff to Afghanistan in Dublin. They scored a 2-1 series win over Hong Kong in the UAE last November, then beat them again in the opening match of the Asia Cup qualifier. However, Oman also lost twice to UAE and three more times to Afghanistan in that stretch. Since the end of the Asia Cup qualifier, the team has kept busy at a training camp in Chandigarh.

At the helm
At 38, Sultan Ahmed is the oldest captain in the tournament and is Oman's most capped player, having appeared in 121 of their 131 international matches across different formats. He has been in charge since the start of the Asian Cricket Council Premier League 50-over tournament in May 2014. A former first-class wicketkeeper with Karachi, Sultan made his Oman debut in 2004 in a match more famous for Afghanistan's entry into international cricket.

Oman will be hoping allrounder Maqsood performs more consistently at the World T20 © ICC/Sportsfile

Even though he is fourth overall with 569 runs at 18.97 in T20 cricket for Oman, he has mainly been used as a lower-order batsman and hasn't had to bat in a quarter of his 52 T20s.

Key stat
31.05 The average age of Oman's squad, making them the oldest team in the tournament. The next closest are West Indies at 30.70; Ireland (28.35) are the next closest Associate.

Leading men

Adnan Ilyas
Oman's all-time leader in both 50-over and T20 runs, Ilyas averages 29.13 in 36 T20s and needs 68 more runs to reach 1000 in his T20 career. He missed the World T20 Qualifier but gave a reminder of his class in November last year, cracking 107 in a three-day match against Afghanistan. That same month he began a streak of seven straight 20-plus scores in T20Is that culminated in 54 off 27 balls against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup.

Jatinder Singh
Though not as explosive as Maqsood, his opening partner, or Ilyas at No. 3, Jatinder is the glue that regularly holds together Oman's innings. He led Oman with 213 runs at the World T20 Qualifier, good for third overall in the tournament. His five T20 fifties in 30 matches are tied with Ilyas for the most fifties by an Oman batsman; two of those scores came against Ireland and Netherlands.

Aamir Kaleem
One of their three left-arm spinners, Kaleem is Oman's leading wicket-taker in T20s with 35 in 37 games at 17.94 and an economy of 6.60. Originally a No. 11, he has carved out a spot in the middle order after making significant strides with the bat in the past year, including a career-best 59 against Scotland and two 40-plus scores against Hong Kong. He's also the most likely candidate at the World T20 to attempt to mankad a non-striker.

Left-arm spinner Aamir Kaleem boosts his credentials by being handy with the bat these days © Peter Della Penna

Burning question: Can Zeeshan Maqsood be this tournament's Associate breakout star?

On debut in 2012, Maqsood scored an Oman 50-over record 199 off 159 balls at the Asian Cricket Council Trophy Elite. He was out without scoring in two of his next three innings. It summed up the boom-or-bust nature of the hard-hitting Maqsood, who Pringle compared to Chris Gayle after he made an Oman T20 record 86 off 41 balls against Canada, the first win in his team's march to the World T20. Scores of 52 and 46 in the Asia Cup against Afghanistan and UAE are signs he could be the 2016 World T20's Stephan Myburgh.

In their own words: Zeeshan Siddiqui
"After qualification, we got a boost in Oman cricket in every sector: infrastructure, the playing standard, getting expert coaches. At the time we qualified, we only had one turf ground in Muscat. Now we have a second turf ground and floodlights added to the first. It has helped us a lot to increase our standard of cricket.

"I can say it's a dream for us to play a World Cup in any format, T20 or 50-over, but it's a big achievement to play against those countries which we normally watch on the TV. The next step is to compete there and show the world we are capable, we can play good cricket and to show our talent."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna

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