Team has vastly improved and will pose a huge challenge: Oman vice-captain Ilyas

Hosts Oman would be looking to showcase their rapid improvement to a world audience as they open their ICC Men’s T20 World Cup campaign against newcomers Papua New Guinea (PNG) in a First Round, Group B outing here later on Sunday.

Oman made their own T20 World Cup bow in 2016, defeating Ireland in their first game, but the home team vice-captain, Aqib Ilyas, insists his side are a totally different proposition to the team “we saw five years ago”.

“There is a huge difference now,” said the top-order batter ahead of the opener. “We have some young talent in the team and the players have gelled properly, we have been playing together consistently for four or five years.

“There is a lot of unity in the team and our fitness has improved. We are mentally really strong and we have brought some coaches in who have helped us in this aspect,” said Ilyas to

“There was a time when bowling and fast bowling was the only strength of the Oman team. Now I feel we are doing well as a whole unit. Our fielding has improved, our batting is now up to the mark and our bowling is still strong. This team is much better than the one in 2016 and we have raised the bar,” he said.

Returning to T20I action for the first time since February 2020, Oman suffered a couple of losses to Sri Lanka and the Netherlands in warm-up matches here. But a 32-run victory over Namibia helped them build momentum for an opener in which they are the favourites.

They have beaten PNG in all four of their previous meetings, all coming in the ODI format, but Ilyas is guarding against complacency. “All the games are important for us, whether it’s PNG or Bangladesh because all teams have done really well to reach here,” he said.

“We’ve played a few ODI matches against them and won all of them, but in T20s we haven’t played them in a long time. They will give their best on the field, and so will we. Although we have the upper hand in the last few games, we use hope to continue the winning streak.”

One of two teams, along with Namibia, making their debut in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, Papua New Guinea have been acclimatising to conditions in the UAE and Oman for longer than any other nation. They lost to Namibia and Scotland in warm-up fixtures but with the support of their entire country, captain Assad Vala is relishing the opportunity.

“Most people will say it’s just another game, but it’s not to us,” he said. “It’s our first ever World Cup, so the approach is going to be different. It has been tough to deal with COVID-19, but we have to accept that and move forward.

“We have prepared well, we’ve been here a month longer than other teams and have played a lot of warm-up matches. I couldn’t have asked for better preparation than this. PNG are well aware they won’t have the backing of the crowd at the Oman Cricket Academy and hope to play party poopers.

“They’re a really good side — they are well discipline and well drilled,” said Vala of the Oman team. “We’ve done some homework and hopefully we can put them under pressure. It’s a home game for them, so everyone will be behind them.

“We’ll need to be up and about and have a lot of energy around the group. We just have to focus on ourselves and what we do well out in the middle.”