By Suneer Chowdhary
For a cricket team that was afforded the Associate status only in 2014, Oman’s qualification for the 2016 ICC World T20 came as a big surprise to most.
It had all boiled down to a do-or-die encounter against Namibia in the 14-nation World T20 qualifiers last year, with the winners making the cut for the main event and the vanquished flying home.
Batting first, Namibia were looking for a final push with three overs to go but Indian-born quick Munis Ansari struck twice in the 18th over, conceding just four runs in the process.
Oman went on to win the game and create history.
Ansari, who finished with match figures of 3-23 from four overs and a tournament haul of 12 wickets, finally fulfilled his destiny.
It was the culmination of a long journey which started when the young lad from a poverty-stricken family from Sehore in Madhya Pradesh won a fast bowling contest a few years ago. That catapulted Ansari, who also received huge encouragement from his brother, into the CCI XI team that took on a touring England side in a warm-up game in 2006. In that match, Ansari took the wickets of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff.
“At that time I felt I could even play for India one day. I was bowling at around 150 kmph and our national selection panel seemed very pleased with me too,” he says.
“I also remained with the Indian team for a few days and bowled at them at Wankhede.”
Ansari says despite good performances at the age-group and club levels, he never got a call-up for the state side which led him to believe that his dream of representing India will always remain just that -- a dream.
“In all the matches I played in below the first-class level, my performances were extraordinary. In division matches, I took eight-nine wickets every game.”
“Jo bhi unki demand thi, woh sab poori kee lekin mujhe chance nahi mila. Toh fir maine wahaan se...” (I fulfilled all of ‘their’ demands and yet I never got a chance. So, I decided to move on).
Ansari left India in 2009 when a company in Oman came calling for cricketers.
Almost all players in Oman’s national team are expats from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They have worked their way through to the national side after representing their various companies.
Company cricket is the bloodline of the sport in Oman. It’s a part of their domestic structure. There are about eight divisions, with each company belonging to one of those divisions and there is promotion and relegation at the end of every season.
Players representing their companies get time off from work – most of them work half days and are allowed to practice for the remaining half in a deal that’s worked out between the board and their employers.
Unlike his teammate, Karachi-born batsman Zeeshan Siddiqui, who came to earn a living in Oman and took to playing the game, Ansari’s move was motivated by his desire to play cricket.
After fulfilling ICC’s criteria of having stayed in the country for four years, the opportunity to represent Oman came after Ansari had led his company to top-two finishes in successive years.
“I made my debut for Oman in 2013 in an ACC Twenty20 Cup game. (I) toured Bermuda and finished as the highest wicket-taker. (He took 16 wickets in six games at 14.81). After that, in every subsequent tour, my performances have been extraordinary,” he claims.
“Matlab pichhley chaar saalon may Oman may sab se jyaad wicket lene waala bowler may hoon, domestic and international level. (I am Oman’s highest wicket-taker in domestic and international level in the last four years.)”
“My target was to finish as the best bowler in the tournament and for Oman to qualify for World T20 and I achieved both my goals.” (He took 12 wickets, the most by an Oman bowler and joint second-best overall).
“Having got a stage to perform, I needed to grab it. My dreams, my hopes were to play for India but I got my chance here and I need to prove to myself I could do it.”
“I am thankful I did,” he adds.
Despite Oman entering the World T20 qualifiers as underdogs, Ansari says they were not lacking in confidence.
Against Canada, Oman managed to chase down 135 in 11.2 overs, thanks to a Zeeshan Maqsood special.
Against Netherlands, Ansari bagged four wickets to help restrict the eventual champions to 135. Oman achieved the target in 19 overs.
Much-fancied Afghanistan were then crushed by 40 runs before that fateful Namibia game which took them to this year’s main event.
The embers of a dream of playing for India have died down. Ansari now wants Oman to qualify for ODI World Cup too.
Oman are currently in the ICC World Cricket Division Five. If they finish in the top two of that competition -- which will be held in May this year -- they will be promoted to Division Four.
To make it to the 2018 ODI World Cup qualifiers, Oman need subsequent top-two finishes in Divisions Four, Three and Two, respectively. And if that wasn’t tough enough, they will then need to overcome two full member nations and probably others like Afghanistan and Ireland to have a chance of making it to the 2019 World Cup.
Ansari is looking to ride that journey as the team’s next goal.
“The plan is to play in ICC’s Division Five tournament in Jersey later this year, practice for that to begin with. We want to progress up the divisions, and see where that takes us,” he signs off.
The author is a freelance cricket writer and tweets @suneerchowdhary