October 17, 2021 promises to be the start of new things in Oman cricket. Until three months ago, the stadium in Al Amerat resembled a village ground with park benches to accommodate a few hundred people. On Sunday, the venue that was used as a recreational facility by morning and evening walkers from the neighbouring residential suburb, will witness history when Oman take on Papua New Guinea in the opening game of the T20 World Cup 2021, with 3000 fans expected to be in attendance apart from many others who will watch on TV.
Oman's players, most of whom play on the weekends away from their full-time jobs, spent their first four weeks in August "knocking off extra kilos" before trying to pack in as much cricket as they could to be match-ready for their second-ever big-tournament appearance. PNG, meanwhile, have endured a tough second wave of the pandemic. Having qualified for their first-ever World Cup, they want to use the tournament as a platform to bring smiles back on their people's faces. After all, they will be playing in front of a televised audience back home for the first time. Ever.
Oman, the last team to qualify for this event after beating Hong Kong by 12 runs in a sudden-death playoff, have the confidence of beating Indian domestic powerhouses Mumbai 2-1 in the T20s in August. They also competed hard in the three 50-overs matches that followed, losing the series 2-1. They also competed well before going down to Sri Lanka in two T20s earlier this month.
PNG too have had a decent build-up, having arrived in Oman early September. They have played eight ODIs in all, two each against USA and Nepal, apart from four World Cricket League Division 2 matches against Scotland and Oman. In between, they had two intense camps and have topped off their preparation by playing in two ICC warm-up games: they were toppled over easily by Ireland, who restricted them to 96 for 8 in the first. In their most-recent outing, they managed to give Sri Lanka a brief flutter before falling short by 39 runs chasing 163.
Players to watch
Kashyap Prajapati, a 26-year-old top-order batter, struck a 138-ball 146 in Oman's total of 248 against Mumbai last month. The knock paved way for his international debut against PNG later in the month. Apart from offering explosive hitting ability up top, he is also a handy offspinner. Having arrived in the country from India, for work only recently, he has made heads turn in local cricket and is believed to be a clean striker. A T20 World Cup debut can top off what can best be described as a whirlwind journey so far.
Tony Ura is PNG's rockstar. A big-hitter at the top of the order, he is also their leading run-scorer in T20Is, with 768 runs in 26 innings at an impressive strike rate of 140. He is PNG's only T20I centurion, who also has four of the top five highest individual scores for the team.
PNG lost both their tournament warm-ups, by eight wickets to Ireland and by 39 runs to Sri Lanka. They ran Namibia close in a T20I last week, eventually falling short by 14 runs in a tall chase of 175.
Oman beat Namibia in their first warm-up and were in control of their chase of 162 against Netherlands before falling four short. Prior to that, they gave Sri Lanka a tough fight in the two T20s before going down.
Stats that matter
"We believe in ourselves. We want to play to the best of our abilities. We want to express ourselves. We want to make it to the second round to test ourselves against the best teams in cricket. We don't want this World Cup to be a one-off."
- PNG captain Assad Vala
- PNG captain Assad Vala
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo