The turbulence was so incessant that some of the passengers on a charter flight from Delhi to Dharamsala began pondering worst-case scenarios. Among the passengers was the Oman cricket team, who had qualified for the country’s maiden show at a cricket World Cup– the World T20 in 2016–and were en route to play the opening round of the tournament.
But even after three separate landing attempts, the flight was still airborne. Today, Jatinder Singh, the star batsman of Oman, laughs while narrating the story of their near three-hour flight to nowhere. But back then, Jatinder knew that the prospect of an unfinished dream crossed some of their minds.
“To be fair, our boys weren’t panicking half as much as the Netherlands team, who were also on the same flight,” says Jatinder, still laughing. “But it all ended well. The pilot turned around and landed back in Delhi and we boarded a bus the same night back to Dharamsala.”
The uncertain times for Oman cricket ended when they reached Dharamsala. They beat Ireland (a team that would soon play Test cricket) for the first-ever time in their history and would possibly have made it to the big-boys round had bad weather not followed them and Netherlands to their game, a washout.
Since then, Oman has been taking long strides towards becoming a cricket force. In the span of three years they have moved from ICC’s Division 5 to Division 2, gained ODI status and also qualified for their second consecutive T20 World Cup. But even before their flight from Muscat to Melbourne could take off, a pandemic spread across the globe and postponed the Australian event by two years.
Like everyone else, Jatinder has since moved on and is currently engrossed in the happenings of the IPL, played in nearby UAE. But unlike most, he still remembers that this weekend, October 18, would’ve been a time to play rather than watch on the world stage – against Papua New Guinea and Ireland and heavyweights Sri Lanka in Geelong, Victoria.
“What will I miss about it? Lots of things, but mainly the experience of learning from the best that only happens when you play against them,” says Jatinder. “The World Cup is where we get to challenge ourselves and see where we stand as a cricket team. I always looked at how the top players go about their lives and games; how they switch from Plan A to Plan B in tough times. It had taught me a lot.”
Jatinder takes this education seriously. During the T20 Asia Cup in Bangladesh that preceded the 2016 World T20, the top-order batsman ensured that he timed his breakfast in the team hotel with the Indian players and pick their brains over bowls of cereal and fruit. “Especially Virat Kohli’s. I play in a similar position for Oman and would make most of my time with him by asking him questions in Punjabi,” he says.
Born and raised in Ludhiana, Punjab, Jatinder moved in his early teens to Muscat, where his father worked for the Royal Oman Police. Cricket unites a widely divided expat community in Oman, and Jatinder too signed up to belong. Soon, he was travelling back to the country of his birth as an international cricketer, arranging passes for his extended family to watch him play.
“Many people in Oman said that we fluked our qualification to that World Cup in India,” says Jatinder. “But by qualifying again for the World Cup in Australia, we proved to ourselves that there are no flukes in sports.” This Oman did by riding on a Jatinder performance that made the media in Muscat give him a new moniker – ‘Oman’s Virat.’
In a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Hong Kong in Dubai, Oman quickly found themselves reduced to 42/6. Jatinder, who opened the innings, controlled the situation with 67 runs, half of the team score of 134. Oman eventually won by 12 runs. “I enjoy such situations where I get to test myself,” he says. “I kept telling myself that if I can take the game deep, we will always have a chance of winning and qualifying for Australia.”
That day, Jatinder helped Oman ride out the spell of turbulence. But despite landing safely, the uncertainty over their future remains.