South American Championships: Six visiting teams out to halt Argentina's unbeaten run
The fourth South American Championships, starting in Buenos Aires, Argentina this Thursday are not only the biggest ever, but likely to be the most competitive.
Staged from December 7-10, the inclusion of the Argentine A team replacing the full national side and arguably stronger squads from the visiting countries means an Argentine win is not quite as certain as in past tournaments.
Argentina A will be joined by fellow debutantes Panama, along with Peru and Brazil in the 'Blue' Group, while last year's runner-up, the Guyana Masters, will contest the 'Green' Group with Chile and Venezuela.
The group winners will meet in the final next Sunday, the same day a 'bronze medal' match between group runners-up will be played.
The Argentine A team, essentially a second XI, has a proud record to preserve, with Argentina unbeaten in the three previous Championships, in Buenos Aires in 1995 and 1997, and Lima, Peru, laast year.
Tbe tournament is pivotal to the game's development in South America, providing vital match play for one club countries such as Brazil and Peru.
Due to its developmental nature, eligibilty rules do not apply.
Apart from the rumoured improvement in strength of the visiting teams, the main interest will centre on the performance of the Panamanians.
Drawn from the country's Indian community, Panama has fielded representative teams many years ago but this will be its first appearance in a tournament of this nature.
Official, Ismael Patel, said the timing of the tournament, coinciding with Ramadan, had affected the quality of the team.
"We have some difficulty sending some of our better players because they are Muslim and now we have Ramadan," Ismail lamented.
"The Muslim players have no condition for play in this month and they didn't play during the day [because of Ramadan]."
The well known West Indian touring team, the Miami Masters, are back, playing under the banner of 'Guyana'. The businessmen, in their 40s and 50s, spend their spare time playing in tournaments across the Western Hemisphere and are popular wherever they go.
It's not just tourists who are attracted to Brazil by its romantic character - cricketers too! Its cricket team has been strengthened by players attracted to the land of Carnivale by their Brazilian girlfriends while holidaying in Europe.
An important find for Brazil is former Kent Second XI player Matt Featherstone, who is also a pro' at Bromley. He should steady the top order, batting at number three.
Another gain is opener, Robert Hesketh, from Loughborough College, while all-rounder, Norman Baldwin, has represented Canada.
Hesketh's partner at the top of the order, will be teacher, Graeme Salt, a match-winner against Chile recently. He is said to bowl useful off-breaks.
The side will have its share of Portuguese speakers, with all-rounder JP Hilario a Portuguese banker who learnt his cricket in South Africa, while Thomas Milton is the side's sole Brazilian passport holder.
In all the Brazilian squad includes six Britons, two Australians, two Indians, as well as players of Brazilian, Guyanese, Canadian and Portuguese origin.
Brazilian team official, John Milton, was quietly confident despite limited preparations:
"The main problem has been a lack of practice and lack of testing opposition. Rainy weather has also hampered things," Milton said. "But we seem to have a competent side and are hoping to do well."
Peru, which in reality is the Lima CC, has a relatively experienced squad, with captain, Vivian Ash, his deputy, Jorge Pancorvo, Hans de Wit, and Giresh Chugani, having played in all three previous South American titles.
Only three of the team have not played for Peru before, however, as the only club in the country, has had restricted chances for match practice.
The teams in the 'Green' group who draw the bye, will play friendlies against a local Invitational XI.
Special guest at the Championship dinner on Saturday night will be ICC's new Development Officer for the Americas, Robert Weekes, who commenced his role on December 1.
This will obviously be an excellent opportunity for Weekes to assess the current situation in South American cricket.
Thursday, December 7 Argentina 'A' v Panama at Corimayo Brazil v Peru at Lomas Guyana Masters v Chile at Hurlingham Venezuela v Invitation XI at Pinazo (friendly)
Friday, December 8 Argentina 'A' v Brazil at Lomas Peru v Panama at Hurlingham Guyana Masters v Venezuela at Corimayo Chile v Invitation XI at Pinazo (friendly)
Saturday, December 9 Argentina 'A' v Peru at Hurlingham Brazil v Panama at Pinazo Chile v Venezuela at Lomas Guyana Masters v Argentina Masters at Quilmes (friendly)
Sunday, December 10 Final: Winner 'Blue' Group v Winner 'Green' Group at Lomas Third/Fourth Play-off at Corimayo