Italy, Jersey favourites in pursuit of Division Four
The start of the 2023 World Cup Qualification cycle begins on Sunday when eight Associates will battle for two promotion berths at the World Cricket League (WCL) Division Five tournament in South Africa.
It may seem like a long way away from achieving a World Cup dream, both in terms of the six-year lead-in for a fresh cycle and each team's current world rankings, but Afghanistan and Oman may provide these teams the inspiration to stay focused on the goal of achieving promotion to Division Four. The journey from Division Five in 2008, has culminated in Test status for Afghanistan nine years later.
Oman are no less of a dramatic story, having used a maiden berth at the World T20 in 2016 as a springboard for 50-over success, achieving three straight promotions from Division Five in 2016 to Division Two scheduled for early 2018, putting them within striking distance of the World Cup Qualifier for the main event in 2019.
Unlike most six-team WCL events, which feature a five-match round-robin stage, the margin for error in this eight-team Division Five is slimmer. The teams have been divided into two four-team groups, with each team playing three group games in the round-robin stage. The top two from each group advance to the knockout stage. The pair of winning semi-finalists will secure a spot in next year's Division Four alongside Denmark, Bermuda, Uganda and Malaysia. Here's a look at how each team shapes up ahead of the first day of play in Benoni.
A side that possesses discipline without any explosive gamechangers, Guernsey rely on building pressure to achieve success. Like their Channel Island rivals Jersey, they feature several players who have had county experience.
Among them is William Fazackerley, the 19-year-old batsman who made his first-class debut with Leicestershire earlier this summer. Matthew Stokes was the Player of the Tournament at the last Division Five held in Jersey in May 2016, after his superb batting displays at the top of the order. But Guernsey's failure to gain promotion was mainly down to a lack of support in the middle order, a shortcoming that needs to change.
A talented but ageing side, they have struggled to maintain their status in the WCL ladder after getting as high as Division Three in 2013. A pair of narrow losses - by one wicket and three wickets to USA and Jersey, respectively - saw them being relegated from Division Four in Los Angeles last year.
The urgency of stopping their decline is highlighted by the return of one of the World Cricket League's finest allrounders, Peter Petricola. The 34-year-old Melbourne-based star has not appeared in a WCL event since Division Three in 2013. He hasn't played in any event for Italy since May 2015, but has answered an SOS for this tournament to help the country rediscover their past. Big-hitting allrounder Carl Sandri, who once played for Sydney Thunder, was one of the few to come away with his reputation intact after their relegation, and needs to have another big tournament for Italy to make the semis.
The Gulf nation will make their World Cricket League debut, after upsetting Saudi Arabia in a virtual final at the ICC Asia Qualifier in Thailand. Tamoor Sajjad was one of the batting heroes on that day and the middle-order batsman, their finisher, ended that tournament with 230 runs at 57.50.
On the bowling side, Mohammed Nadeem is a force to be reckoned with. The left-arm spinner took a tournament-best 20 wickets in six matches in Thailand and is expected to be a handful once again in a tournament where most teams typically struggle against slow bowling.
The Caribbean side possess one of the most lamentable records in WCL history, having been relegated four times in five tournaments after once maintaining a place in Division Three in 2009 alongside Afghanistan. The only team with a worse record is Argentina, who essentially rode the relegation train with them until both were jettisoned back to Americas' regional qualifying.
Under the guidance of new technical director Peter Anderson, Cayman Islands defeated Argentina in a head-to-head playoff series earlier this year to be the Americas representative in South Africa. Traditionally one of the oldest sides in world cricket - Pearson Best didn't hang up his boots until 2012 when he was 48 - they have a slight injection of youth in former U-19 star Sacha de Alwis.
The strongest side in the weaker half of the draw, Jersey are strong favourites for promotion back into Division Four. At full strength they were good enough to beat Oman last year, a side which has since risen to Division Two. They suffered a key blow ahead of Division Four in the USA last October, when star allrounder Ben Stevens was ruled out due to a medical condition.
The 25-year-old Stevens has been cleared to play again in a side featuring Sussex-contracted Jonty Jenner and newly-appointed captain Chuggy Perchard, who took over from Peter Gough following the team's relegation. Gough forms a solid one-two punch at the top with allrounder Nat Watkins.
The Pacific Islanders don't have the overall depth of Jersey but compensate with individual talent capable of devastating opponents. Seaming allrounder Nalin Nipiko is the team's best player and, even though he's only 21, boasts seven years of experience in the senior team.
Medium-pacer Patrick Matautaava has continued to develop in recent years thanks to an overseas league stint in Newcastle, England with his batting improving to the point that he can also claim allrounder status after a match-winning 54 not out against Fiji in a de facto final at the East Asia-Pacific regional qualifier. Captain Andrew Mansale continues to provide balance and experience as a spinner.
The last time Germany participated in Division Five was in 2008, in Jersey, when they finished one game short of the semi-final. However, both losses in the group stage were lopsided - to USA and Nepal - and as a result they fell back to Division Eight. They were never able to climb higher than Division Seven before the bottom three Divisions were culled from the tournament structure altogether in 2015.
However, Germany dominated the ICC Europe regional qualifier last June in the Netherlands, on the back of the heavy scoring of Mudassar Muhammad, who scored 355 runs including two centuries. Muhammad also took nine wickets and shoulders a good portion of the bowling responsibilities alongside Shahil Momin.
Like the Germans, Ghana had never made it past Division Seven in 2013 before they were jettisoned back to regional competition. They re-enter Division Five after dominating the ICC Africa regional tournament in April. Though they are heavy underdogs to reach the semis, they do have the advantage of having played their regional qualifier on the same venues being used for Division Five - in Benoni.
Ghana's hopes are tied to the Ateak brothers. 23-year-old Simon Ateak finished as the leading scorer in April's qualifier, with 173 runs at 57.66, while 20-year-old Vincent Ateak provides discipline with the ball. He took 12 wickets in 45.3 overs, including 15 maidens against regional opponents at Benoni.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna