Muscat: There seems to be no shortage of surprises at Oman Cricket’s disposal, vis-a-vis their handling of wicketkeeper-batsman Sultan Ahmed.
If the former captain’s recall to the list of Twenty20 probables in November had come as a big surprise, the governing body of Oman’s cricket sprang an even bigger surprise on Tuesday by naming 38-year-old veteran as the captain of the 14-member team that will travel to the neighbouring UAE to take part in the Desert T20 International Tournament.
Back in April, 2016, the selectors dropped Sultan from the side that toured Jersey for the ICC World Cricket League Division 5 competition. That decision was termed as shocking, especially since it came right after the team’s return from India where Sultan led Oman in their historic participation in the World T20 Championship preliminary rounds, during which they managed to beat Ireland.
Tuesday’s announcement, though, would have pleased Raha CT’s star player but it is also sure to help the critics to raise some questions, considering his current form, especially in the shortest format of the game.
In the just concluded Premier League T20 Championship, Raha CT finished second from the bottom in the seven-team event with Sultan averaging 8.0 with the bat, scoring 40 runs from five innings. He also took four catches and affected two stumpings.
But it’s his experience rather than the current form that the selectors looked into before naming Sultan as the captain.
The selection committee, according to chief selector Syed Anwar Ahsan, picked the team and the captain based on the recommendations of the Oman Cricket’s Chief Development Officer and head coach Duleep Mendis.
When contacted by Times Sport, Syed Anwar Ahsan, who is also a member of Oman Cricket board, said: “After the team’s performances in the Jesery (ICC WCL Div 5) and the Los Angeles (ICC WCL Div 4) tournaments, Chief Development Officer (Duleep Mendis) saw the need for some changes.”
“With two to three important tournaments coming up in the future, he made some recommendations regarding the team selection for the UAE tournament. And as per his recommendations, we made some changes and finalised the team,” he added.
A positive step
However, Oman Cricket General Secretary Madhu Jesrani was more forthcoming while admitting ‘it looks like a step back but a positive one’.
“In the selection of Sultan Ahmed it looks like we are going back. We have a reason to go back as we have some big tournaments coming up this year. But we believe it is a positive move and let us see how it works out,” he said.
Madhu Jesrani explained: “The Desert T20 is a very prestigious tournament. We will be playing some strong teams, including six ICC Associate teams. Considering that and the tournaments we will be playing in the future, including ICC WCL Div 3 in May (in Uganada), we chose a new combination.”
“After World T20 participation, Oman cricket has come under more focus... there is a lot of attention now. Everybody from ICC to the ordinary fans, from both outside and inside Oman, wants to know what and how we are doing. Keeping that in mind and in an attempt to build a good team for the future, this team has been picked,” he said.
The Oman Cricket official also said: “All the players who are selected for the UAE tournament deserve their places as they did well in the league as well as in the training camp and the selection trials.”
Asked specifically about Sultan’s selection as the captain whose current form in T20s has not been that good, Madhu Jesrani said: “Sultan is one of the most experienced wicketkeepers. He has played a good role for Oman cricket in the past. As I said, looking at the future tournaments, we chose him as the captain.
“We have talked to him about many aspects... his form, his experience before picking him. This is also his chance to let his performance to do the talking. Now it is up to him to deliver,” he added.
For the record, Premier League T20 champions Assarain’s keeper Naseem Khushi, who is part of the 14-member team, scored 113 runs at an average of 37.7 in five innings.
Runners-up Al Turki’s Twinkal Bhandari has averaged 17.67 scoring 106 runs in six innings. He also took eight catches behind the stumps.
Twinkal was understudy to Muscat CT’s Swapnil Khadye in the ICC WCL Div 4 in the US. Interestingly both were not even part of the 20 probables announced in November.
Sultan himself admitted that his T20 performance has not been up to the mark off late but said he is in good touch and in right frame of mind.
"I got a call (from Oman Cricket) before the Premier League T20. At that time I was already doing well in the Premier League 50-over competition. I know I have nothing great to show from the T20 league in terms of numbers. But I am in fine touch. My basics both in the batting and keeping are as good as they were in the past.
"When the call came, I told them I am ready to serve the team and country. But I have also told them I need time to come back into the right rhythm as playing at international level is a different ball game all together. I have been working on all aspects of my game and I am also in right frame of mind. And I am glad Oman Cricket has given me another opportunity to serve the team both as a player and the captain."
Talked to Lalcheta
While hard-hitting opening batsman Zeeshan Maqsood will be the deputy to Sultan, Ajay Lalcheta, who led the team in the both ICC WCL Div 5 and 4 competitions, has also been included in the squad.
Madhu Jesrani said: “We have talked to Ajay (Lalcheta) as well. We have explained to him the situation, what we are expecting from this tournament and how we are looking to the future. He understands the situation.”
Also included in the squad are inform opener Arun Poulose of Assarain and Muscat CT’s all-rounder Rajeshkumar Ranpura, who averaged 40.60 and 44.67 respectively in the recent Premier League T20.
The team also includes Omani all-rounder Sufyan Mahmood, Khawar Ali, Mehran Khan, Khurram Nawaz Khan, Mohammed Nadeem, Bilal Khan, Aaqib Ilyas and Kaleemullah.
The selectors have kept the remaining six probables -- Shuaib Ismail, Jatinder Singh, Zeeshan Siddique, Munis Ansari, Amir Ali and Nester Dhamba, as the reserves.
In the UAE, Oman play their first Group B match against the Netherlands on January 15. Then they take on Hong Kong the following day before completing their group engagements with a match against Scotland on January 19. The semifinals and final will take place on January 20.
Meanwhile, the Oman team had a surprise visitor to their training camp in the form of South African spinner Imran Tahir.
The star leg-spinner, who is in Oman on a private visit, though refused to talk to the media owing to his contractual commitments with Cricket South Africa, he posed for photographs with Oman team players.
Oman squad for Desert T20:
Sultan Ahmed (captain), Zeeshan Maqsoood (vice-captain), Ajay Lalcheta, Khawar Ali, Sufyan Mahmood, Naseem Kushi, Arun Poulose, Mehran Khan, Khurram Nawaz Khan, Mohammed Nadeem, Bilal Khan, Aaqib Ilyas, Kaleemullah and Rajesh Ranpura.
Reserves: Shuaib Ismail, Jatinder Singh, Zeeshan Siddique, Munis Ansari, Amir Ali and Nester Dhamba.
Officials: Coach: Duleep Mendis; Assistant coach: Mazher Khan; Physio: Suresh Kumar.
Oman fixtures: Jan 15: Netherlands vs Oman; Jan 16: Oman vs Hong Kong; Jan 19: Scotland vs Oman. Jan 20: Semifinals and final.