Eight of the top Associate teams in world cricket have touched down in the United Arab Emirates this week to compete in - what a few of the participants have dubbed a 'mini-Associate World Cup' - the inaugural Desert T20 Challenge. Associate teams are constantly pining for more opportunities to play and, as such, this tournament is a welcome addition to their fixture calendar, one that they hope is not a one-off.
Some of the participants are looking at this tournament as a way to make a big statement by potentially knocking off some of their big-named peers, such as Afghanistan. For others, it is an opportunity to blood new talent in a rare Associate event in which promotion, relegation or some other form of ICC tournament qualification or progression isn't at stake.
The format has eight teams split into two groups of four, and playing three round-robin group games. The top two teams from each group then advance to finals day, with a pair of semi-finals played on the morning and afternoon of January 20 before the final that same night. Here's a look at how each team is shaping up heading into the tournament that begins from January 14 in Abu Dhabi.
The top-seeded tournament favourites took another big step forward last year by not only reaching the main draw of the World T20, but beating eventual world champions West Indies in a low-scoring thriller in the group stage. In terms of their T20 form, they swept UAE 3-0 in a series held in Dubai last month, giving them more recent game experience in the format than every other team in the tournament.
Aside from the usual suspects like Mohammad Shahzad and Dawlat Zadran leading the way with bat and ball, some younger faces have emerged to ensure that Afghanistan remain the top dogs of Associate cricket. Najibullah Zadran was the Man of the Match in the win over West Indies and the impact of that performance gave him a wondrous boost of confidence that carried over through the rest of 2016. In the recent series against UAE, Najibullah scored a total of 104 runs off 45 balls across three innings, without being dismissed in his role as the team's finisher. Any team hoping looking to disrupt Afghanistan's path to the final will need to find a way to cool down his red-hot bat.
United Arab Emirates
After a poor showing at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier, UAE sprang a major surprise by upending Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Oman to reach the main draw of the 2016 Asia Cup, where they very nearly pulled off another upset against Sri Lanka. It was their bad luck that Lasith Malinga decided to suit up to test his bruised knee ahead of the World T20, wrecking UAE with a spell of 4 for 26 in their pursuit of a target of 130. Malinga hasn't played another match since.
Though they were downed by Afghanistan last month in all three T20Is in Dubai, UAE ran them close in the first two encounters. They fell 11 runs short chasing down 161 in the first match before Shaiman Anwar's half-century in a total of 179 was negated by the brilliance of Najibullah. Shaiman was the leading scorer in the three-match series with 150 runs and he'll need to produce similar output to give UAE the best chance of reaching the semis.
It may seem odd to some that Ireland and Afghanistan were paired in the same group for the round-robin stage, especially when they'll be facing each other in an extended tour beginning in March. But Ireland was drawn on this side by virtue of having the lowest T20I ranking - 17th - of any team at the tournament. It is the most tangible representation of their struggles in the format. Beginning with a shocking loss to Papua New Guinea in Belfast at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier, they have lost eight of their last 11 completed T20Is.
Ireland's most recent match was a 40-run loss at home to Hong Kong in September in which they brought in five debutants in an attempt to stop the rot. The most promising performance from that group was delivered by Greg Thompson, who top-scored with 44 that day.
William Porterfield is the longest tenured captain at the tournament and will be hoping that a return to the site of Ireland's victorious 2012 and 2013 World T20 Qualifier campaigns may serve as an inspiration to turn around their fortunes.
The only team without T20I status in the tournament, Namibia received an invitation after Papua New Guinea declined to participate. In their most recent major T20 tournament action, they ended up a frustrating seventh place at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier after having finished third in the group stages. With two chances to clinch a trip to India, they were soundly beaten by the Netherlands before being stunned by Oman, which not only cost them a spot at the main tournament but a chance at T20I status as well.
Namibia had a rocky road against other Associates throughout 2016 as well, losing an Intercontinental Cup match by an innings to Afghanistan before being swept in a pair of WCL Championship matches in Nepal. Their problems were magnified when a full-strength side were delivered a crushing 141-run home defeat in September by Saudi Arabia in preparation for a I-Cup and WCLC tour of Papua New Guinea, which also ended with three losses. Their hopes for reaching the semis may be pinned to the return of Louis van der Westhuizen. The big-hitting left-hander helped Namibia to a 7-0 record in round-robin play at the 2012 World T20 Qualifier in these same venues, including a destructive century against Scotland, but was out of the side for nearly two years before marking his return in November.
The highest seeded team in their half of the draw have shown remarkable resiliency to replenish their available assets over the years to keep themselves in the conversation for top Associates. This has shown through particularly in T20I cricket where once again they demonstrated their capabilities on a global stage at last year's World T20, running Bangladesh very tight before succumbing by eight runs, before continuing to have Ireland's number with a win in Dharamsala.
Their entire fixture list has been sparse since then. A grand total of four days of cricket since last March - losing inside of two days to Afghanistan in the Intercontinental Cup in July, followed by a WCL Championship split with Nepal in August - may have allowed some rust to build and it was borne out in a five-wicket loss to a UAE Developmental XI on Wednesday. It's up to captain Peter Borren to coax a good bounce back in their opening encounter against Oman on Sunday.
The lone side in this group to play a T20I since the World T20 in March, Hong Kong defeated Ireland by 40 runs in September and have stayed fairly busy since then in all formats with tours to Scotland and Kenya in addition to hosting Papua New Guinea for three ODIs in November. Most recently they had a development tour to Australia with an emphasis on T20 cricket, which included games against Sydney Sixers and Sydney Thunder.
The batting is headlined by captain Babar Hayat, who eclipsed Afghanistan batsman Mohammad Shahzad's then record score of 118* to produce the highest T20I score by an Associate player when he made 122 in a loss to Oman at the 2016 Asia Cup. Hayat will be tasked with taking a good chunk of the batting burden in the absence of Mark Chapman, who continues to develop playing with Auckland in New Zealand's domestic competition. The spin arsenal, led by left-armer Nadeem Ahmed, may be a handful in these conditions.
Despite the sudden retirement of former captain Preston Mommsen in November, Scotland enter this event with one of the most settled squads in this tournament. Kyle Coetzer has taken over the leadership once again after relinquishing the job to Mommsen in 2014 and remains an explosive presence at the top of the order. Calum MacLeod produced two centuries in his last three ODI innings for Scotland at home against UAE and Hong Kong and has a great opportunity to continue that form in T20 cricket.
On the bowling side, Scotland has a young pace attack that may be tested in desert conditions. However, the glue holding the side together with the ball is Con de Lange. The left-arm spinner was a ripe 34-year-old when making his debut for the national side in June 2015 after migrating from South Africa, and in the 18 months since then has rapidly turned into one of Scotland's most consistent contributors, marked by his elevation to the vice-captaincy in the wake of Mommsen's departure. He'll need good support though, from fellow left-arm spinner Mark Watt, in order to tie down some explosive batting lineups in Group B.
Though they are officially the lowest-ranked side in this half of the draw, Oman will not be taken lightly after making waves in the cricket world over the past year and a half by not only qualifying for the World T20 in India, but then defeating Ireland in their tournament debut. Despite not having played any T20Is since leaving Dharamsala, they have actually been one of the busiest Associate sides in world cricket, playing a total of 16 one-dayers as part of their consecutive promotions at World Cricket League Division Five in May and Division Four in November.
Coach Duleep Mendis has never been afraid to tinker with the side in the search for winning combinations and as a result a slew of changes have taken place for the squad arriving in the UAE. The biggest ones are the omissions of batsman Jatinder Singh and slingy medium-pacer Munis Ansari, who each paid for sub-par performances at Division Four in Los Angeles, while the side may be galvanized by the return of wicketkeeper-captain Sultan Ahmed. The 39-year-old's career appeared finished after he was axed following the World T20, but he has been given a surprise recall in a bid to boost Oman's chances of reaching the semis.