Battle royal for World T20 prize
A 16-team Associate and Affiliate battle royal known as the World Twenty20 Qualifier gets underway on Friday across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Last year's event in the UAE was a physically taxing experience for all the teams that took part. The winners, Ireland, toiled through 11 matches in 12 days of desert heat to outlast all other comers, only to have one of their two matches at the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka cruelly halted by rain.
Ireland return to the UAE to defend their title, and this time, they won't be running on fumes by the time the play-off stage begins in Abu Dhabi. This year's qualifying tournament has been extended by four days, giving each of the participants a few more precious days off to recharge.
The tournament will be no less of a slugfest though, with 72 games in 16 days, and the reward for finishing in the top six and reaching the main event next year in Bangladesh is not a guaranteed date with Australia or West Indies like in 2012. Another hurdle will have to be cleared, in the form of a second qualifying round of fixtures featuring Full Members Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Aside from the fact that six teams will now advance to the opening phase in Bangladesh instead of two, the biggest change to this year's format is the increase from six to 10 teams for the play-offs. A team can finish as low as fifth in their respective eight-team round-robin pool and still have a chance to finish in the top six in the final standings if they can pull off wins in two consecutive play-off contests.
The defending champions Ireland trade off the departure of Boyd Rankin from the squad that won this tournament in 2012 for the addition of Niall O'Brien, who missed last year's event, in part due to his decision to play in the Bangladesh Premier League. While Rankin will be missed, Ireland still managed to finish in the top two at the qualifiers in 2010, when Rankin was out of action due to injury, and they have enough depth without him to do well again. Paul Stirling was the Man of the Match in last year's final and Ireland will be banking on him to intimidate bowling attacks throughout the tournament.
UAE finished third in the World Cricket League Championship table, behind only Ireland and Afghanistan. They were especially formidable in home conditions, winning six out of eight games in Sharjah including a sweep of Afghanistan. Opposing teams will struggle to match up against their plethora of tweakers, including a trio of left-arm spin options led by allrounder and captain Khurram Khan, Ahmed Raza and Shadeep Silva. Canada have been revitalised recently by the return of Ashish Bagai, who finished graduate school in Pennsylvania this year and has now come back to take over as captain. His middle-order presence reinforces the top order, which is anchored by the rapidly improving Ruvindu Gunasekera.
Battle for play-off spots
Namibia were surging on a wave of confidence heading into last year's qualifier and went undefeated in the group stage before faltering in the play-offs. However, it's highly unlikely they will finish the group stages with an unblemished record this time around. Louis van der Westhuizen smashed a century against Scotland in the group stage last year, and Raymond van Schoor was named Player of the Tournament after leading the runs list in the group stage but van der Westhuizen has struggled for runs lately and the team is also missing the presence of the veteran Gerrie Snyman. They were beaten comfortably in their two pre-tournament warm-up games by Kenya and Scotland and will be targeted by some of the mid-tier teams in the group.
Hong Kong in particular are a well-balanced side, and will be expected to show a stark improvement from their disappointing sixth-place finish in Group A last year. While conditions will generally favour spinners during the event, pace bowlers who can bowl above 135 kph, like Irfan Ahmed and Aizaz Khan, will be key to their team. Italy do not have the overall depth of the better teams in the group but they still have enough tools to keep the pressure on Hong Kong and Namibia. That they nearly beat Ireland at last year's event should not be forgotten.
Wooden spoon candidates
USA and Uganda both have strong spin attacks suited to the conditions at this tournament. However, neither side has the batting depth to be serious contenders and they will realistically need to restrict teams to no more than 130 to have any chance of chasing down a target. USA have the experience of captain Neil McGarrell and Adam Sanford, as well as power-hitters in Steven Taylor and Timroy Allen, but the team is far too reliant on Taylor to be able to consistently post big scores. Even 130 may look like a mountain for Uganda. They were held to 76 for 9 in a pre-tournament warm-up against Afghanistan.
This group is likely to be the more tightly contested one of the two. While Afghanistan are expected to top the group, the finishing positions for slots two through five are anyone's guess. Afghanistan did lose to Canada in a warm-up match earlier in the week but they were without the services of former captain Nawroz Mangal and Shapoor Zadran due to visa issues. Afghanistan were dominant throughout the group stage last year, thanks to the team's leading scorer Mohammad Shahzad. This time, they will have Hamid Hassan back at full strength to bolster their fast bowling even more. Hassan's presence makes Afghanistan favourites to dethrone Ireland as the kings of the Associates.
While Netherlands are not as strong without Tom Cooper and Timm van der Gugten, they still have enough experience to get them into the top three of their group. Peter Borren and Eric Szwarczynski are lynchpins for the Dutch and will provide some much-needed stability in their batting order. Scotland have had the benefit of reinforcements from the English county scene, thanks to a revision of ICC eligibility requirements. Matt Machan in particular has been a key addition and should help take some pressure off of captain Kyle Coetzer as they look to secure a strong position heading into the play-offs.
Battle for play-off spots
This is where the group is likely to turn into a dogfight. Nepal finished seventh a year ago, with a win over Kenya and a narrow defeat to Canada. They are riding high after winning WCL Division Three in May to advance to the 50-over World Cup Qualifier in January. Nepal aspire to be a top-flight Associate, and this is their chance to show how much they've matured. Paras Khadka was one of the stars of last year's tournament with his solid all-round performances, while Gyanendra Malla is one of the most dynamic batsmen outside of the Full Member world. Nepal also have a slew of spinners led by Shakti Gauchan and Basant Regmi, that will look to strangle opposition scoring rates and put Nepal in a good position to advance to the play-offs.
Kenya's shellacking at the hands of Afghanistan in October sounded off alarm bells in Nairobi. An SOS call went out to Steve Tikolo and the 42-year-old responded to come out of retirement. Kenya are depending on him to galvanise the rest of the team in order to arrest their free fall from the heights of 2003. Papua New Guinea are a hungry and energetic side who'll be breathing down the necks of Kenya and Nepal in an effort to squeeze them out of the top five. PNG finished fourth in Group A last year and an 18-run win over Ireland in a tournament warm-up match on Wednesday has made the rest of the teams in Group B take notice of their bid to progress into the knockout stages.
Wooden spoon candidates
Bermuda were swept aside in a set of three trial matches by USA ahead of the tournament. They struggled to get to 100 runs in each game, with their highest total only being 108. They chased down 182 against a good Canada side in a tournament warm-up match but also failed to get the 129 needed to win against a weaker Italy side. This is a mercurial unit who are more likely to go bust than boom. Denmark are also unlikely to make a splash. The team won just a single match in the 2012 Qualifier, against Bermuda, and wound up finishing in last place. After Freddie Klokker, the batting is paper thin and the likelihood of Denmark challenging anyone in Group B is remote.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey