Associates join the Twenty20 bandwagon
Ireland, fresh from their European Championship success, will start in good spirits but will face stiff competition from pre-tournament favourites Kenya and arch-rivals Scotland, who both played in the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa. Canada, Netherlands and Bermuda are the other three teams involved.
With the concept of Twenty20 internationals still relatively new to the Associate teams, all six sides will start on a similar footing although Ireland will feel they have their noses ahead for three simple reasons: they are playing at home, are at full strength and have shown excellent form of late in the Intercontinental Cup and the European Championships.
"We'd always back ourselves, but we know it's going to be difficult," said Ireland captain William Porterfield. "There's so much at stake, not just in financial terms, but in terms of prestige. The competition in England is going to be an incredible experience, and we'd like to be there," he said.
Porterfield said his team's chances for next year's event would not end even if it failed to qualify for the final. "The fact that it looks like there is going to be a third place with the likelihood of Zimbabwe withdrawing, then it takes a wee bit of the pressure off.
"It means if we lose in the semi-final, then we're going to have a second chance to qualify. That third and fourth-place place-off game will probably be the most tense match of the entire competition."
These six teams last got together in a qualifying tournament in Nairobi in January-February 2007, for the World Cricket League Division 1. Ireland finished fifth then, while Kenya defeated Scotland by eight wickets in the final.
But, despite that pedigree, Kenya captain Steve Tikolo says his team are behind Ireland and Scotland in the pecking order. "In the Twenty20 format anything can happen but I think Ireland and Scotland are the two favourite sides because they are playing in familiar conditions while we are coming from hot conditions.
"We have worked extremely hard in England on a pre-event tour and have made sure we have all the resources and have all bases covered."
Tikolo, who has played all of Kenya's 23 matches in World Cups, stressed the importance of this tournament for Kenya cricket. "We have to qualify for next year's event because it's extremely vital to the development of the game in Kenya," he said. "There is no point in having a good team that cannot perform."
Third seeded Scotland defeated Ireland in the World Cup Qualifier 2005 (formerly the ICC Trophy) and captain Ryan Watson said despite injuries his team had the ammunition to fire in the tournament. "We have a strong squad, with players who are ideally suited to this form of the game," he said. "In John Blain and Dewald Nel, I feel we've got the best new ball attack among the Associate teams. It's such a bonus to have guys who take wickets up front, and they do it consistently to peg back the opposition.
"I open the batting in the one-day format, and I see no reason to change that. Gavin Hamilton has started to open and has done quite well. We'll also have Navdeep Poonia and Kyle Coetzer available from the counties so we have options.
"Unfortunately we've been hit with a few injuries," he added. "Our former captain Craig Wright misses out as he has a back injury. That combined with the loss of Gordon Goudie means that there is an opportunity for the others to step up."
Looking ahead at the clash against Ireland on the opening day, Watson said: "An opening fixture with Ireland in Ireland is about as tough as it gets. As a tournament opener this should be a great one for fans of both countries."
Netherlands' preparation for the Belfast tournament has been up and down. They failed to qualify for the final of the European Championships in Dublin and installed Jeroen Smits as captain in place of Peter Borren just this week.
Smits, the 36-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, was not included in the original side and comes in place of 31-year-old batsman Bas Zuiderent. "I wasn't originally supposed to be in the squad, but we've had a few injuries, and I've been asked to come back in and help out," he said.
Smits said his team will target third place in the tournament. "We're in a tough group, but then there are no easy fixtures when you are at this level. Canada and Kenya are strong teams, but you have to look at yourself and your own strengths. If we play to our potential, then we will be hopeful of making it. Our focus is, of course, to finish in the top three."
Canada and Bermuda are the dark horses of the tournament. Both have struggled in the Intercontinental Cup but Twenty20 cricket brings sides closer together. Bermuda, are coached by the former West Indies batsman Gus Logie and he said his team need to stay focused throughout the tournament.
"Since this is a new concept, players aren't experienced enough which gives us a good chance to produce good results. It's a fast paced format and you have to match that pace and the 11 players need to fire to get the desired results."