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Oman's improbable journey to India

From 29th in the world to beating Ireland on their World T20 debut in Dharamsala, Oman's success over the last year is no mirage

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
Oman players wait to take the field, Ireland v Oman, World T20 qualifier, Group A, Dharamsala, March 9, 2016

Oman are ready for the bright lights and TV cameras in India  •  International Cricket Council

They were all lined up like thoroughbreds bucking against the starting gate. They knew the shot was coming and they wanted to be ready.
Bang. Zeeshan Siddiqui pummels the ball over mid-off and the race was on. Oman may have just qualified for the World T20, but there was a small matter still to be decided.
"I think I was the first one to run into the ground when we won. Everyone was waiting [on the boundary] but I was the first one to go and lift the batsman up," beams Sufyan Mehmood. "It was the best moment of my life."
Oman have barely broken into international cricket. The World T20 qualifier in July 2015 was their first-ever televised match. They play one-dayers in Division Five of the World Cricket League, while their opponent Namibia had already been to a World Cup in 2003. David would have felt like Goliath standing next to them.
But underneath it all lay the biggest significance for Oman. In Mehmood. He is the only player in the squad at the World T20 who is native to the Gulf state. He is 24 years old and the promise he shows as a fast bowler should give him several opportunities at a repeat of that winning feeling. That bodes well for Oman. Homegrown talent is invaluable, especially for an Associate nation where football's pull makes cricket a distant afterthought.
Mehmood, however, had a leg up. His father had moved to Oman 40 years ago and married a woman from Pakistan. "Cricket is in our blood," he says.
Perhaps more kids from Oman might also pick up the bat and ball if his and his team's success in recent times - they beat Hong Kong on their Asia Cup debut in February - continues. Mehmood drew his inspiration from wanting to pick up a different object too, a rather coveted one. "When I started playing cricket, my goal was always to play in a World Cup."
Mehmood began his career playing school cricket. Then he made the cut for Oman Under-17s in November 2008, their U-19s in April 2009, then a national camp and voila, he was in the senior team too by the following November. He introduced himself in the Asia Cup in 2016 with a giant no-ball, but with the next one, he broke Rohan Mustafa's bat. Perhaps Mehmood misunderstood the meaning of "free hit."


It was as recently as 2007 that Oman had to make do with pitches made of cement because they didn't have a turf one. Former captain and current team manager Jameel Zaidi takes pride in the fact that the team has played four World Cup qualifying tournaments - for the 50-over version in 2005 and 2009 and the 20-over version in 2012 and 2015 - with such limited infrastructure. They are in the main event now, having punched well above their global ranking that sat at 29 in July.
And they have a turf strip now, surrounded by a lush green outfield and recently added floodlights, at the Ministry of Sports complex in Al Amerat, about 20km away from the centre of Muscat. Only the premier division gets to play their matches there but there are plans to build a second turf ground at the complex to help the other domestic teams get a taste of conditions that prevail in international cricket. According to their official cricket website, there are five all-Omani teams in domestic cricket. Overall there are 58, and they are grouped into divisions from A through J.
Munis Ansari is among those who have played at the highest level in Oman for years now. With a slingy action like Lasith Malinga - "I've had it since my childhood," he insists when the comparison is made - he had been in line for a national cap in 2012, but had to wait a year longer to complete the mandatory four-year residence period put forward by the ICC.
Born in Sehore, Madhya Pradesh, Ansari reckons he could have played for India if he'd had some help in his formative years. "I used to bowl 140-plus," he says, but his hopes waned when he couldn't find a place in his state team for the Ranji Trophy. So he moved to Oman for work as the sales supervisor at Enhance Group of Companies.
Unity is Oman's biggest strength and they set a lot of store by it. "We appreciate everybody," Jatinder Singh says. "Each and every person is important in the team, even those not playing are equally important."
Ansari, the leader of Oman's attack, is used to unsettling batsmen at the top and at the death. He can be a bit up and down and his speeds are considerably lower now that he is nearly 30 , but Oman trust his experience. "He's very deceptive," coach Duleep Mendis said after his 3 for 23 in that World T20 qualifier against Namibia.
Ansari has made his way in an unfamiliar land. He was recently promoted at work. Oman are on a similar track. Cricket is uncharted territory, but they aren't shying away. Their T20 games now have international status.


Oman have just won a tight contest. Oman are in the midst of controversy having mankaded one of Hong Kong's best batsmen to get their way. Oman have not had dinner yet. It's past midnight. Oman are celebrating. I am fidgeting. There's a story to cover, but my transport is waiting and if I miss it, my chances of making it back to Dhaka are nonexistent.
Jatinder Singh asks me where I'm staying, then quickly asks a local liason if the team bus heads that way. The answer, predictably, is no. Jatinder doesn't accept it. He asks for the next best thing - a suitably nearby point where I can be dropped off. A shake of the head again. Jatinder looks positively displeased. So instead, he invites me to eat with the team. I tell him I need to talk to a few people about the mankad first. He takes me right to the man responsible for it. I get a one-on-one with Aamir Kaleem, and all the while I wonder if this would have happened with one of the Full Members.
Jatinder was born in Ludhiana, but he has bonded with Oman. It's been his home since 2003 and it was where he first wanted to be a cricketer.
"Me and my cousins used to play on Sundays, and after school hours. I had a passion for cricket, but I didn't know how to get into it. I didn't know there were levels like U-15, U-16, U-19 and so on. When I was studying in Indian School, Muscat, in eighth grade, there I got to know what to do. I came through the Oman system."
Jatinder represented Oman U-19 in 2007, but it wasn't as life-changing as he'd hoped. "My performance was… I wouldn't say great." Much like the liason's reply, this wasn't acceptable to Jatinder. "I went back to league cricket and slowly I developed my skills. I practised five days a week and, in 2011, I was called up for the national camps and soon made my debut in ICC Division Three in Hong Kong. I played two games, got to bat only once and I scored a duck." Safe to say that wasn't his big break either.
The break would come four years later in 2015, right when Oman needed it the most. Jatinder was the team's top scorer in the World T20 Qualifier in Ireland and Scotland - 213 runs at an average of 35 - including a match-winning half-century against Netherlands.
"Everybody rushed into the ground after we won that game," he recalls. "I cannot describe the feeling. They lifted me up. I scored 65 not out and we won the game comfortably. It was really so soothing to beat such a reputed team in the cricket arena. The celebration was just so great. We were all on top of each other. Dancing. Our board members were there. They also celebrated with us. It was really nice."
That unity is Oman's biggest strength and they set a lot of store by it. "We appreciate everybody," Jatinder says. "Each and every person is important in the team, even those not playing are equally important." Evidence of that came in their final match of the Asia Cup, when a substitute raced out after rookie left-arm seamer Bilal Khan had made a fine stop on the third-man boundary to pat Kaleem on the back because Kaleem had run all the way from point to pat Bilal on the back.
Looking within is how Oman have made it to the big stage. So they should keep at it. Plumb as deep as necessary to strike the gold they so dearly need - local talent.
"Education [about cricket] needs to happen at school level," Jatinder says. "We need more academies so it becomes reachable for the locals. We do have a few now, but they are not full time. They function three days a week, one and a half hours a day."
The World T20 will help. They are assured of $250,000 participation money. That can help generate better infrastructure. The ICC is also looking into allocating more funds for the Associates. But the exposure this team has earned will be priceless. A World Cup is the kind of thing that turns even the staunchly uninterested into hysterical fans.
"The companies are coming forward and investing. They are relying on cricket," Jatinder says. "People are also following us now, they want the Oman team to do well. That's a change we've seen in the recent past."
So who's to say that years from now another youngster born and brought up in Oman won't sit in front of another reporter, feel silly when asked why he chose his career path and answer, "Cricket is in our blood."

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo