Last chance to book berth at World Cup 2015
Five years worth of fluctuating fortunes in the World Cricket League Championship culminates in the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier, beginning in New Zealand on Monday. Teams as low as Division Seven of the ICC's 50-over round-robin tournament structure had the chance to climb the Associate and Affiliate ladder to get within striking distance of a spot at the 2015 ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Two Associate berths remain available for next year's event after Ireland and Afghanistan snatched a pair of places by virtue of finishing first and second in the ICC World Cricket League. The bottom six teams in the WCL Championship are joined in New Zealand by the third and fourth place teams from WCL Division Two in 2011 - Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong - as well as the first and second place teams from last year's ICC WCL Division Three, Nepal and Uganda.
The 10 teams are split into two groups of five for the initial phase of round-robin play after which the top three from each group will advance to the Super Six stage and remain in the hunt for a World Cup berth. Points gained from the group stage against fellow Super Six participants will carry over while the three teams in Group A will each play three crossover games with the three that advance from Group B. The top two teams after the Super Six stage will advance to the final and gain entry to next year's World Cup.
They narrowly missed out on one of the two places available for World Cup qualification in the WCL Championship, finishing just one point behind Afghanistan. They were good enough to sweep both 50-over games they played against Afghanistan during the competition and went 6-2 overall in games played in the UAE with their only losses at home coming to Ireland.
On the road they were not quite as formidable, going 3-3 including a loss to Kenya in their first match of the tournament and a sweep at the hands of Netherlands, who finished in fourth place on the table. Their ability to adjust to New Zealand conditions with a bowling attack light on seam options and heavy on spin will be a major factor. UAE showed in their two warm-up matches ahead of the qualifier, though, that any fears of a struggle may be unfounded, with heavy wins over Uganda and pre-tournament favorites Netherlands.
After finishing fifth in the WCL Championship and a disappointing seventh at November's World Twenty20 Qualifier, a mini shakeup occurred with coach Pete Steindl leaving and Paul Collingwood moving up from assistant coach to the top role for the World Cup qualifiers. Scotland need to exploit the seaming conditions in New Zealand if they are to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 2007.
Seam bowlers Rob Taylor, Saafyan Sharif and Gordon Goudie demonstrated in the warm-up fixtures against Papua New Guinea and Namibia that they will be a handful to deal with. 22-year-old batsman Matt Machan is also carrying solid form into this tournament. Group A is far more competitive than Group B, but Scotland will be extremely disappointed if they don't make it to the Super Six stage.
Despite qualifying for the last three World Cups, Canada are the most vulnerable of any of the four Associate ODI nations in this event of not progressing to the Super Six stage. They performed poorly in November at the World Twenty20 Qualifier, finishing 12th, and wound up dead last in the WCL Championship. Head coach Gus Logie was dismissed upon the team's return from the UAE in December and it is up to interim coach Andy Pick to turn things around on short notice if Canada have any chance of keeping their World Cup streak alive.
John Davison was Canada's catalyst for success in the last decade but since his departure after the 2011 World Cup, they have been unable to develop a genuine matchwinner. Former captain Ashish Bagai's early retirement last month at the age of 31 exacerbated the issue of a lack of batting depth. Teenager Nitish Kumar scored a century in a 39-run win over Netherlands in a warm-up match on Friday, but Canada had also beaten Afghanistan in a World T20 Qualifier warm-up match before flopping in the main event.
This team is one of the most balanced sides in the competition, with a pair of quality fast bowlers in Aizaz Khan and allrounder Irfan Ahmed to go along with good support from spinners Nadeem Ahmed and Nizakat Khan. However, they will miss out on the experience of left-arm spinner Munir Dar, who was the second highest wicket-taker at the World T20 Qualifier. His action was reported twice during the tournament and he was subsequently ruled illegal by the ICC resulting in his suspension from bowling in international cricket for 12 months.
Of Hong Kong's many young batting talents, batsman Mark Chapman has a lot of experience in local conditions. Chapman had a successful school career in Auckland, captaining King's College, and is expected to make major contributions in the middle order. The only strike against Hong Kong is their mercurial nature, as likely to score 300 as they are to be bowled out for 120. They must demonstrate consistency to make it out of a stacked Group A and into the Super Six stage.
No team has climbed higher through the most recent WCL tournament cycle than Nepal to reach the qualifier. They started in Division Five in 2010, which they hosted and won, before winning both Division Four in Malaysia in 2012 and Division Three in Bermuda last May. Even though their attack is spin heavy, they have demonstrated that they can be successful in varied conditions away from home.
The backbone of the team's success in recent years has been captain Paras Khadka but Nepal must get quality contributions from a thin pace bowling unit to survive in the tournament. Sompal Kami, a 17-year-old medium-pace bowler, is expected to make his debut and could provide the spark Nepal need. In the warm-ups he took 4 for 36 against Namibia but was rocked by Kenya to finish with 0 for 86. Nepal needs more of the former and not the latter to stay in the hunt.
The pre-tournament favourites are banking on a quality seam attack and a steady batting unit to produce a return trip to the World Cup. Captain Peter Borren is a former New Zealand U-19 representative and will be drawing on his experiences before migrating to Holland to aid his adopted country at this event.
Fast bowler Ahsan Malik was the leading wicket-taker at the World Twenty20 Qualifier in the UAE and should enjoy just as much success in seam-friendly conditions in New Zealand. A pair of losses in tournament warm-up fixtures to Canada and UAE may cause slight alarm but they are hands down the strongest team in a weak Group B so will be expected to gain maximum points to carry over into the next stage.
Their weaknesses were exposed in a competitive group at the World Twenty20 Qualifier, but Kenya should now benefit from being paired with fellow African nations Namibia and Uganda in Group B. Steve Tikolo was one of the few bright spots in November after coming out of retirement and if he can produce a few more vintage innings then it should be enough for them to get into the Super Sixes.
A big positive for Kenya entering the start of the qualifier is the form of opener Irfan Karim. He made an unbeaten 130 in a narrow two-run loss to Hong Kong in a warm-up fixture on Friday. Kenya are also hoping that a change in leadership, with Rakep Patel taking over the captaincy from Collins Obuya, will help turn things around.
If they had been placed in Group A, Namibia would have a slim chance of making it out of the group stage. They finished equal with Canada on four points in the WCL Championship, but by virtue of having two wins to Canada's one, they were seventh in the standings on tie-breaker instead of eighth which subsequently resulted in Namibia landing in Group B and Canada in Group A.
Namibia's luck of the draw is not the only piece of good fortune for them heading into this tournament. Gerrie Snyman, originally left out of the squad for the qualifier, has been added as a replacement for JB Burger. Snyman hadn't played for Namibia since last January due to a dispute with the Namibia board over his availability but showed what his country has been missing all this time by top-scoring with 73 against Scotland in a warm-up game.
Papua New Guinea
The Pacific Islanders showed plenty of energy at the World Twenty20 Qualifier, making it out of the group stage, but the lack of an explosive slogger in their line-up probably prevented them in the end from finishing in the top six. The steady accumulation of runs needed in 50-over cricket better suits their playing style and will aid their chances of success in this tournament.
PNG don't have any express bowlers, but a slew of accurate medium-pacers led by captain Chris Amini and Mahuru Dai may pose problems for the opposition. Geraint Jones is the most heralded player in their squad due to his Test credentials, but opener Tony Ura outperformed Jones in the UAE in November and is hoping to build on that experience.
After winning just one game at the 2005 ICC Trophy and two at the 2009 World Cup Qualifier, Uganda are aiming to change their struggles at this tournament. However, the chances of that happening are slim due to the nature of conditions and their lack of batting depth. Uganda must rely on their sharp fielding to make up for deficiencies with the bat and in the pace bowling department.
In Uganda's favour is the fact that several players carry the experience into this tournament from playing in previous editions of the qualifier. Medium-pacer Charles Waiswa, wicketkeeper Laurence Sematimba and allrounder Frank Nsubuga will be playing in this event for the third time. They will need to shepherd some of the newer faces through the daunting schedule ahead of them.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. He tweets here