ACC Trophy: Afghanistan go in as favourites
Non-Test cricket's celebrity team of the last few years, Afghanistan, start their quest for a first ACC Trophy in Kuwait on Wednesday as favourites, ahead of defending champions, Hong Kong and traditional tournament heavyweights, UAE.
The customary qualification for the Asia Cup is not on offer to the finalists, so the main interest may be whether the full-strength Afghans can continue their recent run of success. This includes qualification for next month's World Twenty20 which they earned by snaring the ACC Twenty20 Cup in November, and winning World Cricket League Divisional titles amongst others. Their immediate challenge is to overcome fellow Group B team UAE who have prepared with matches last week against English counties Durham and Sussex. The UAE squad includes seasoned veterans who helped maintained their unbeaten run from 2000 to 2008, captain Khurram Khan and all-rounder Arshad Ali.
Malaysia, with ACC veterans Suresh Navaratnam and Rakesh Madhavan, and Bahrain, may pull off a surprise, although a shock is unlikely from Bhutan which returns to the top level of Asian non-Test cricket thanks to finishing second in the ACC Trophy Challenge tournament ahead of teams such as Myanmar and China. They lost the final against Oman by 213 runs.
Oman lurks in Group A and are somewhat unpredictable. Packed with allrounders, they could conceivably win the tournament or crash out at the group stage. Group A has greater depth with Nepal and Hong Kong the favourites to qualify for the semi-finals. It is at that stage Nepal traditionally stumbles, and will be seeking their first berth in a final since 2002. Singapore captain Munish Arora told Cricinfo last week his team will be distracted from the job at hand in their match against Nepal on April 3. It will be the first time the teams have meet since a riot in a match in World Cricket League Division Five saw Nepal promoted ahead of Singapore. The debacle deprived Singapore of a second straight WCL tournament title, so they should be confident. Nepal has the late distraction of vice-captain Gyanendra Malla's denial of a visa to enter Kuwait. Should his situation not be sorted, a replacement player will be sent.
Hong Kong will be led by Najeeb Amar, who hit a ton in the 2008 ACC Trophy final against the UAE, and include rising star Irfan Ahmed and veteran Roy Lam Sam. Although there are several changes from the 2008 squad, all the key players are in this one. In a tough group, they should not be dismissed as contenders. Kuwait, as first time host, will be familiar with the grounds and players with lengthy ACC Trophy experience, including Khalid Butt. Potentially, they could decide who makes the semi-finals.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo