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T20 World Cup qualification disappointment for Omani cricket shouldn’t overshadow major strides made in recent years

It was only on Nov. 14, 2021 that Australia was crowned the winner of the delayed ICC 2020 men’s T20 World Cup in Dubai.

On Oct. 16, 2022, the first match of the men’s ICC 2022 T20 World Cup will take place in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Twelve of the 16 teams which will participate in the competition are already known. The other four will emerge via two qualifying tournaments, each comprising eight teams.

The first of these took place in Oman between Feb. 18 and 24, with the second scheduled for Zimbabwe in mid-July. This week-long format represents a change in approach by the ICC, as previous global qualifiers ran for almost three weeks in one location. The shorter format provides some cost-saving to the ICC but, most importantly, it allows part-time players to take less time off work.

In Oman, the eight teams competing for two positions were Ireland, the UAE, Bahrain, Germany, Nepal, Canada, the Philippines and Oman. The first four teams were pooled in Group A and the second four in Group B. The only full ICC Full Member which is participating, Ireland, has qualified for six of the last seven T20 world Cups. This made it a pre-tournament favorite, but performances have been inconsistent. Stiff competition was expected from the UAE, Nepal and Oman, all of whom have previous experience of playing on the global stage. Germany and the Philippines made their first ever appearances at a global qualifying tournament.

After playing against the other three teams in their respective pools, the top two teams in each pool played the runners-up in the other pool. On Feb. 21, these emerged to be Ireland v Oman, Nepal v UAE and, on Feb. 22, it was Ireland and the UAE who clinched their passages to Australia, winning by 56 and 68 runs respectively. Ireland had every reason to be wary of the hosts, who upset them in the 2016 tournament. Defeat for Ireland in Oman would have been a severe setback, since they have 18 full-time centrally contracted players to call upon.

The global qualifiers were played on the two pitches at the Oman Academy grounds in Al-Amerat, Muscat. The stadium was established in 2012, floodlights were added in 2015 and the first international match, a T20, was played between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in January 2019. A cricket academy was introduced in November 2018, with a vision to make cricket a sport enjoyed by all young Omani residents, regardless of background.

This infrastructure represents a remarkable transformation since the mid to late-2000s when cricket was played on sand and cement or rolled mud and no adequate practice facilities existed. The change was founded on the dreams of Kanaksi Khimji, who established the Oman Cricket Board in 1979. In the ensuing years, he oversaw all aspects of cricket development in the country and was so respected that he was accorded the honorary title of sheikh. He passed away in February 2021 and his son, Pankaj, has taken over the reins.

Khimji’s vision came into its own during the pandemic. Originally, the ICC 2020 T20 World Cup was scheduled to be held in Australia but was switched to India. By late-June 2021, it became apparent that surging COVID-19 cases would require a transfer from India and a decision was taken to co-host in the UAE and Oman.

The first match in Oman was scheduled for Oct. 17, 2021, giving around 90 days of preparation time. Refurbishment of the Al-Amerat ground was undertaken, capacity was increased to over 4,000 through a combination of temporary stands and a permanent one for media and corporate personnel, while the floodlights were upgraded above the ICC’s minimum lux requirements and a digital scoreboard was installed.

There was a scare two weeks before the first match when a cyclone, which caused severe flooding and damage, passed to the north of Al-Almerat. There were no impediments to the hosting of six matches in the first round of the tournament — Oman participating in three — thus making it the first ICC Associate member to host and compete in an event of this size.

On the field, the stock of the Omani men’s team has risen rapidly. It achieved ICC Associate status in 2014, qualified for the 2016 T20 World Cup in India, gained ODI status in 2019 and qualified for the 2020 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. Furthermore, in early 2021, the ICC approved Ground 1 at Al-Amerat for Test match cricket. Among other options, this opens up the possibility for Afghanistan to use the ground as an alternative to a home venue.

Oman’s team, like the Associate countries, comprises part-time players. Several Omani nationals have made the team in the last 10 years, along with others raised in Oman of expatriate parents, but the bulk of the squad is of Pakistani and Indian origin. They will be extremely disappointed not to have qualified as, for some, it may be their last chance to play in the T20 world finals. In planning for the future, quotas are in place in Oman’s domestic cricket that require a set number of nationals to be in playing line-ups. This long-term strategy has a goal of 50 percent of the national team being composed of Omanis within 10 to 15 years.

Alongside the surge in men’s cricketing performance, women’s cricket has been seeking to establish itself on the international stage. In April 2018, the ICC granted full Women’s T20 International status to all its members. Oman’s women’s team played its first matches with this status in January 2020 during a triangular series in Doha against Qatar and Kuwait, finishing second. Last month, a visiting team from England was entertained with Oman winning all three T20 matches. There is evidence that the depth of available talent is strengthening.

Cricket in Oman is based on sound foundations with excellent prospects for the future, now underpinned by the inclusion of cricket in the Omani school’s curriculum. This week’s defeat does not diminish Oman’s place in cricket’s fraternity.

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