Nepal heavy favourites for earning promotion
Most of the cricket world has their eyes focused on next year's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. For many in the Associate world though, their attention has already shifted to the qualification path for the 2019 World Cup.
Six teams have assembled in Malaysia for the ICC World Cricket League Division Three, which begins on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur. The top two teams will be rewarded with a spot in WCL Division Two in January in Namibia where the incentive is an opportunity to be included in the next edition of the ICC Intercontinental Cup four-day first-class competition as well as the WCL Championship, through which Ireland and Afghanistan qualified for the 2015 World Cup.
Although the 2019 World Cup is scheduled to be a 10-team event with a best-case scenario of two Associates qualifying, getting into the Intercontinental Cup and WCL Championship provides the best chance to achieve that goal. Not only is there a more consistent and higher quality of competition on offer, but an increased amount of funding is provided by the ICC to participants. Thus the financial incentives of promotion are just as appealing as any hardware to be won.
For the top two teams in Malaysia, those goals become more realistically attainable while the other four teams will go back to the drawing board as their window of opportunity to keep climbing the Associate ranks closes temporarily. Unlike the last Division Three in Bermuda, there is more parity in this field and it should result in an exciting and unpredictable eight-day event. Adding to the drama will be mother nature. October is one of the wettest months of the year in Malaysia and daily rain could impact the event. Here's a look at each team's chances.
Nepal (1st place at 2013 WCL Division Three, relegated from 2014 WC Qualifier)
After winning the last Division Three in Bermuda, a few key players were stuck on the sidelines at various points during the 2014 World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand, resulting in a winless group stage and demotion back to Division Three. Nepal showed their pedigree when healthy by going 2-1 in the opening round of the 2014 World T20, including a win over Afghanistan. They also registered wins over Associate ODI nations Hong Kong and UAE in the Asian Cricket Council Premier League in May.
The biggest concern Nepal faced in the last year centered on the contract status of coach Pubudu Dassanayake. Captain Paras Khadka threatened to quit if the coach was not retained and after a bit of drama Dassanayake re-signed over the summer. Nepal have loads of experience playing in Malaysia. Left-arm spinner Basant Regmi was Player of the Tournament at the 2012 WCL Division Four, setting a WCL tournament record with 21 wickets in six games as Nepal went undefeated. They will be heavy favorites to nab one of the two promotion spots once again.
Uganda (2nd place at 2013 WCL Division Three, relegated from 2014 WC Qualifier)
The African side won their first four games at the last Division Three to clinch a spot in the World Cup Qualifier thanks in large part to a stifling spin attack. However, their brittle batting unit was completely outdone in New Zealand as their average completed innings score was just 125. In conditions that negated the effectiveness of their slow bowlers, they wound up getting mauled in just about every game and finished winless.
In contrast to conditions in New Zealand, the turning wickets in Malaysia suit their spinners led by captain Frank Nsubuga, Davis Arinaitwe and Henry Ssenyondo. In their four wins in Bermuda last year on the way to topping the table after the group stage, Uganda restricted opponents to an average of 102. Uganda's success in this tournament will once again hinge on their ability to set up and defend low targets.
USA (3rd place at 2013 WCL Division Three)
After reeling off three straight wins to begin the previous Division Three, USA were in the driver's seat for a promotion berth but suffered a pair of stunning losses to Uganda and Bermuda to finish third. Hot and humid conditions in Malaysia will test USA's fitness levels. On their last trip to Malaysia they failed to win a game on the second day of back-to-back contests, a staple of the WCL format. Shortened matches due to rain will play into USA's hands but too much rain causing any games to restart on reserve days will most likely expose their poor preparation.
On the plus side, USA should benefit from the recall of batsman Aditya Thyagarajan and fast bowler Usman Shuja, who were sorely missed in Bermuda. However Timroy Allen, who was Man of the Match in four of USA's last nine wins, is absent as are key middle-order players Rashard Marshall and Orlando Baker. USA still have enough talent to gain promotion, but less depth than past teams makes them equally vulnerable for relegation. USA will most likely be boom or bust with no middle ground and their senior players will be under constant pressure to perform.
Bermuda (4th place at 2013 WCL Division Three)
The hosts of the last Division Three made a great escape from relegation on the final day of round-robin play with an improbable win over USA, a regional rival they hadn't beaten in ICC competition in eight years. However, they'll be prime targets for relegation once again at this tournament. A major reason for that is the number of first-choice players who made themselves unavailable for this tournament including former captain David Hemp, Rodney Trott, Steven Outerbridge and Chris Douglas, the batting hero from Bermuda's win over USA last year.
With the exception of captain Janeiro Tucker and Lionel Cann, this is a very young squad. Tre Manders, Delray Rawlins, Kamau Leverock and Christian Burgess are all extremely talented youngsters who should form the nucleus of the squad for the next decade, but on the whole this team lacks the consistency and experience to make them serious contenders for promotion.
Malaysia (1st place at 2014 WCL Division Four)
After flopping as hosts two years ago at WCL Division Four to suffer relegation, Malaysia gained back-to-back promotions at home in March and at Singapore in June by safely navigating their way through a pair of very tough tournament fields. In between, they scored a shocking upset of Afghanistan on home soil in the ACC Premier League. One can never underestimate the power of home advantage in the WCL. Fourteen of 23 hosts have finished in the top two.
Malaysia's problem in the past has been finding enough batsmen capable of standing up against higher-class bowling. Captain Ahmed Faiz has been dependable of late. He top-scored with 44 in the win over Afghanistan and also led the team in runs at Division Four in Singapore in June. Malaysia have been on a roll this year in the WCL and a third straight WCL promotion would make them the first country to pull off the feat since Afghanistan in 2008-09, but they'll be long shots to achieve it.
Singapore (2nd place at 2014 WCL Division Four)
Perhaps the ultimate hard-luck team in the history of the WCL, Singapore have missed out on promotion three times at various stages of the ladder due to the net-run-rate tiebreaker. As a result, their progress has been stunted and it has taken them six years from where they started in Division Five to crawl into this particular Division Three draw.
Chaminda Ruwan and the hard-hitting Chetan Suryawanshi lead the batting unit. Like most of the teams competing, spin is their strength and their slow-bowling unit is spearheaded by Mulewa Dharmichand and Abhiraj Singh. Each of Singapore's three promotions was achieved on home soil so history is against them finishing in the top two but they are still a very formidable side. It would not be a total surprise to see them overturn their snake-bitten away record.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna