Fourteen Associates vie for six World T20 spots
Fourteen Associate teams will attempt to outwit, outplay and outlast one another in Ireland and Scotland starting Thursday at the World Twenty20 Qualifier. The six surviving teams after an intense 51-match event in 18 days will earn a ticket to India for the 2016 World Twenty20 next March. With the World T20 scaling back from a biennial event to once every four years from 2016 onwards - and no guaranteed places for Associates in the 50-over World Cup - there is even greater desperation in this tournament.
To add to that, the event has been trimmed from 16 to 14 teams from the last time it was held in the UAE, while two playoff berths in the knockout stage have also been slashed. Now, only the top four from each group will advance to the playoffs. The respective table-toppers during the round-robin challenge receive immunity until the semi-finals as well as the prize of a guaranteed slot for the main event in India.
Duckworth-Lewis may play a massive role at this event, unlike the last time. Consistent rain that washed out much of the official warm-up matches may have teams pining to bat last, with overs reduced and all 10 wickets in hand.
Continuity in the Ireland squad has been a hallmark of their success in their title-winning runs from 2012 and 2013. However, only five players remain from the squad that secured the trophy three years ago and a slew of retirements since 2013 has left them somewhat vulnerable. The bowling unit is particularly untested with Trent Johnston and Tim Murtagh's T20 retirements leaving a gaping hole in the pace department.
Scotland exposed the lack of depth in their batting last month with senior players William Porterfield, Paul Stirling and Gary Wilson absent from a pair of swift defeats in Bready. The youth brigade of Andrew Balbirnie, Tyrone Kane and Craig Young need to step up if the big guns don't fire.
Hong Kong have had a steady build-up to the tournament, splitting a T20 series with Namibia in May before travelling to England. They won against a Sussex second XI and tied with Warwickshire second XI in two high-scoring affairs before defending 113 against Netherlands in their last warm-up.
Irfan Ahmed has struggled under the spotlight of bigger Associate tournaments in the past but comes into this tournament in excellent touch. The squad is also boosted by the return of vice-captain Mark Chapman in the middle order. Hong Kong's biggest asset is their pace bowling unit spearheaded by Ahmed, Aizaz Khan and captain Tanwir Afzal, who will all be a handful on seaming wickets.
Battle for playoff spots
After finishing third at the last qualifier, Nepal had extensive preparation leading into this event but fared poorly in the Netherlands just before coming to Ireland, winning just one of the four T20Is. It did not get much better on arrival with a low total against UAE in a warm-up loss on Wednesday.
Nepal's bowling attack is their biggest asset, particularly their pace unit. Sompal Kami and Karan KC will have big roles to play but the focus will be on what kind of support the batting unit can give the captain and vice-captain - Paras Khadka and Gyanendra Malla. Sharad Vesawkar was the hero of the knockout stage in 2013 and top-scored in their loss to UAE, so if his bat can heat up it will cool down pressure elsewhere.
Papua New Guinea have the most cramped schedule for any team in group stage, with their first match coming three days later than anyone else before having to wrap up six games inside of eight days. The team has shown during their pre-event tour in the UK that they are geared up to get over the hump that saw them fall agonisingly short in 2013. They faced up for two matches each against Worcestershire second XI and Gloucestershire second XI, winning one against each of them.
Pulling up the rear
Namibia won the Africa Qualifier in March to get to Ireland and registered a two-run win at home against Hong Kong in May. The early signs since landing for the tournament were not good though as they were blitzed by Scotland and Canada. Since making 59 against Botswana on March 28, Gerrie Snyman has scored 60 runs in eight innings, across formats. If his bat doesn't fire, Namibia are in trouble.
USA were dealt a significant blow with the withdrawal of Steven Taylor ahead of the tournament. His bat served as a great leveller against high-class bowling but without him they may be overmatched. Despite non-existent team preparation, USA benefit from a favourable schedule in terms of rest days and sequencing of opponents, starting off against Nepal.
Jersey make their debut in the qualifier after winning the European Championship in May. They registered a surprise win over Kenya on June 29, defending 157 after a 64 from Ben Stevens. A truer reflection of their abilities came in the last two days against Afghanistan, who bowled them out for 46, before Scotland won by 69 runs on D/L method after racking up 199. They'll do well to avoid the wooden spoon.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna