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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Once you step into the field, there is no-one bigger than you

 Although a fresh pitch is expected for the game in Barbados, Ilyas is hopeful that its inherent characteristics of favouring spin could bridge the gap between the side

Although a fresh pitch is expected for the game in Barbados, Ilyas is hopeful that its inherent characteristics of favouring spin could bridge the gap between the side © Getty

"Our head coach has decided that we won't even be mentioning the name of a single Australian player in our dressing-room as we prepare for the match."

According to Aqib Illyas, this is a diktat that has been laid down by his team's head coach, former Sri Lankan captain Duleep Mendis. It has been put in place in a bid for his players to not get overawed even the slightest by the prospect of facing the high-profile Australian team in what will be a first-time meeting between the two countries at any level.

But if you were there at the Kensington Oval on Tuesday (June 4), listening to Illyas, the Oman captain, you'd have thought it was an order that came directly from him. For, he's surely not taking a step back himself in the face of the biggest challenge in his country's still nascent cricketing history.

It was among the feistier press conferences you'd witness from the captain of an Associate nation. Feisty though less in terms of Illyas trying to stir up some unreasonable expectations for his team but more in terms of the genuine lack of veneration for his illustrious opponents.

He's not the first captain of a non-Test playing nation to of course invoke the spirit of the 'they have more to lose than us' narrative. But there was this rather charming ingenuity to the way the Sialkot-born star batter for Oman did it. There was a sense of frank disregard for the norms of playing it cool with some of the stuff he mentioned as part of him playing down the significance of the occasion. You still couldn't help but egg him on though. For, you could make out that he wasn't simply playing tough. And that he actually meant every word he said about not letting the aura of Australia usurp his team's motivation to compete even before they step on to the Oval.

Illyas is no stranger to facing real-life adversity by backing himself to the hilt though. And playing a cricket match against the likes of Pat Cummins, David Warner and Mitchell Marsh doesn't even register as the biggest challenge he's had to overcome in his life. As the story goes, the 31-year-old was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his left ankle only a handful of years ago. In that moment, he's revealed in interviews to have feared that both his cricket career and his life itself might be over. Thankfully for Illyas and everyone around him, the tumour was found to be benign, but he still needed surgery and that resulted in an 18-month-long rehab, which he spent entirely on crutches. And here he is, under two years later as the captain of his national team in a World Cup.

So when he was asked, expectedly, about the magnitude of facing an Australian team which has some of the biggest names in world cricket, Illyas didn't hold back his thoughts on how he wanted his players to approach the contest.

"Once you step on to the field there are no big names, there's no one bigger than you on the field. It's another game for us. And we don't think we are going to play something extraordinary. It's just a team on the same level as what we are doing. They have done the same as what we are doing - we have qualified, they have qualified, it doesn't make much difference. We respect them of course," he said.

And while their names will not be mentioned or discussed in the dressing room, Illyas did talk about having spoken to his players about looking at the prospect of facing a Mitchell Starc as a chance to get highlighted on the world stage rather than a scary impediment to their success.

Illyas's most telling line about his mind-set came through shiningly when he actually spoke about his own mind-set as captain when he looks at this Australian team as an opposition. If this was a captain from any of the Test nations, you'd have seen headlines like 'Shots fired as opposition captain takes a dig at Australian squad'. And maybe those who will just read these comments from Illyas might chuckle and dismiss them as being nothing but hyperbole from a captain who's desperate to show his team that they have a chance even if they don't. The question was about whether he thought that Oman's very spin-heavy attack could pose a real threat to the Aussies if the pitch on Wednesday (June 5) is similar to the one that his team to lost to Namibia on. And not only did Illyas express his acknowledgement of that potentially being a great leveller for his team, he also went on to reveal his take on the make-up of the Australian batting line-up, especially in terms of who's not around.

"You see how the ball was turning in the last match. The ball was staying low. With the Australian team, they used to have a few players with good techniques in the past like Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. But I don't think they have many now. They look to hit big. They only try to go for sixes. But every day is not the same day, and if we get the same wicket (as the one against Namibia) maybe it could be a problem for then," he said to a mixture of amusement and astonishment in the press conference room.

"Just like the way you saw how difficult it was for the West Indies against PNG. They struggled to chase 130-odd despite them having some of the biggest hitters in the side. So ,you know on a slower track with good quality spinners, the only thing we need to do is play with a big heart and put the ball in the right areas, because the ball doesn't know how big (he means in terms of status and reputation) the batter is. If it turns a bit or it stays low, the batter is in trouble."

But Illyas also did leave his best memorable line for the end. Asked if once the match was over, the ban on using Australian players' names in the Oman dressing-room would be lifted, and the players be keen to interact with the likes of Starc and Maxwell, the captain had this to say, sporting a smirk that turned into a smile.

"It depends how the game goes. It might happen that they might be taking our names. We respect them a lot as a team. But before the game, it's tactical to not get overawed by them. After the game, of course there are great players in their side, and we can learn a lot from them. But maybe even they might be able to learn something from us."

Whatever happens in Barbados on Wednesday night, Illyas had already won us over.

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