"The Netherlands cricket team has played three matches in nine months. I reckon I've got another 20 years in me at this rate." About a year ago, that was the tongue-in-cheek tweet of exasperation from Dutch captain Peter Borren on the state of affairs in Associate cricket.
Coming off a World T20 experience in India, in which they ran Bangladesh down to the wire only to fall short by eight runs, followed by a washout with Oman and a six-over victory sprint over Ireland, Netherlands cricket had been mostly inert over the rest of the calendar year. A four-day match against Afghanistan at the Hague in July was over in two days. Two weeks later, they played two one-dayers against Nepal. That was the sum total of their cricket fixture list.
Fast forward 363 days from that tweet, Borren was wiping tears out of his eyes. A win followed by a Papua New Guinea loss meant Netherlands were winners of the WCL Championship. The reward: 24 ODIs against Full Members from 2020-22 as part of the ODI League for 2023 World Cup qualification. Netherlands have only played 23 ODIs against Full Members since their maiden ODI against New Zealand at the 1996 World Cup.
Almost all those ODIs have been at World Cups, where the majority of those matches have been heavy beatings. Such results trigger the argument of 'should Associates be allowed to play at World Cups?' and 'how will they improve if they don't get to play at World Cups and, more importantly, if they don't get to play Full Members in between World Cups?'
"Now, four opponents have a mandate to tour the Netherlands, not for a 24-hour stopover on the way home to play a one-off match, but for three ODIs apiece with World Cup qualifying at stake"
Outside of the appearances at major tournaments such as the Champions Trophy and the World Cup, Netherlands have only played four bilateral ODIs against Full Members: two at home to Sri Lanka in 2006, a neutral-site win over Bangladesh in Glasgow in 2010 and a one-off in Amstelveen against South Africa in 2013.
None of those matches would have been possible unless squeezed around their opponent's primary touring itinerary to the United Kingdom. Now, four opponents have a mandate to tour the Netherlands, not for a 24-hour stopover on the way home to play a one-off match, but for three ODIs apiece with World Cup qualifying at stake.
So how did the Netherlands do it? Captain Peter Borren touched on a few factors during his post-match presentation interviews this week in Dubai: consistency of performance, improved squad depth and the ability to win tight games.
Of all the teams in the competition, Netherlands entered the final round having used just 17 players, the fewest of any team in the WCL Championship. Ryan ten Doeschate became the 18th - he wasn't needed to bat or bowl - in Wednesday's title-clinching win over Namibia. Wicketkeeper Scott Edwards was capped on Friday to become the 19th player. By comparison, sixth-placed UAE used 37 players in the competition.
The Netherlands squad saw some major changes from the first match to the 14th. Mudassar Bukhari, who was Netherlands' leading wicket-taker in List A matches with 145, announced his retirement in September 2016. Ahsan Malik, whose variations helped him take a five-for in the 2014 World T20 against South Africa, has seen his career tail off since his bowling action came under ICC scrutiny at the ICC World T20 Qualifier in the summer of 2015.
Allrounder Michael Swart retired in early 2016 after being left out of the squad for the World Twenty20. Michael Rippon, who was their leading wicket-taker heading into the final round, was unavailable against Namibia with increasing opportunities with Otago in the New Zealand domestic setup. Paul van Meekeren, one of the best pace bowlers in Associate cricket, was also held out of the final round with a back injury.
Yet Netherlands kept ticking along. Vivian Kingma, a promising prospect since his Under-19 days, claimed ten wickets across the final two rounds against Kenya and Namibia. Roelof van der Merwe has held the middle order and the spin attack together since joining in 2015. Ben Cooper has stepped up at No. 3, after the position was vacated by his brother Tom Cooper. Ten Doeschate contributed with a breezy 65 not out in Friday's win over Namibia.
The close wins highlighted the composure that other teams lacked. Against UAE in Abu Dhabi in January 2016, Netherlands sparked a sensational collapse to eke out a six-run win. In both matches against Hong Kong at Mong Kok this past February, Netherlands pulled out wins by five runs and 13 runs from improbable situations. Without those victories, it may have been Hong Kong on their way to the 13-team ODI League.
In Netherlands' immediate future is the World Cup Qualifier next March where Scotland, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea have also secured a place to compete against Full Members Afghanistan, Ireland, West Indies and Zimbabwe.
Of the three other qualifiers, Scotland have the best shot at pushing for one of the two available World Cup berths. They've already registered victories over Sri Lanka in a Champions Trophy warm-up and Zimbabwe in Edinburgh this year. They have a balanced bowling attack that has improved with the emergence of Chris Sole. Captain Kyle Coetzer has struck three centuries and three fifties in 12 List A matches this year, excluding a century in the win against Sri Lanka.
Hong Kong's batting strength is underpinned by captain Babar Hayat, who has hit five fifties in seven List A innings this year as well as an unbeaten double-century in the I-Cup last week against PNG. Anshuman Rath produced centuries against Netherlands and PNG while the spin attack is led by Nadeem Ahmed.
After four rounds, PNG were in first place on 12 points and enjoying a six-match win streak. But their tailspin over the final three rounds has been dramatic, with a merry-go-round of coaches in the second-half of 2017 being the chaotic backdrop to the on-field disarray. Having overseen things superbly since early 2014, Dipak Patel was suddenly axed in June. Jason Gillespie was announced with fanfare as his replacement, only to stick around for just one series before Joe Dawes took over as interim coach and oversaw four straight ODI losses in Dubai to Scotland and Hong Kong plus an innings defeat to Hong Kong in the I-Cup. Having lost six of their last eight ODIs, their chances of righting the ship in Zimbabwe are slim.
Of the teams relegated to Division Two seeking a second crack at reaching the World Cup Qualifier, UAE have been adversely impacted by the retirement of Khurram Khan after the 2015 World Cup. Muhammad Usman and Rameez Shahzad have given Shaiman Anwar able batting support, but have lacked consistency. Though they will be the only team at Division Two with ODI status, it's plausible UAE will lose it by virtue of finishing outside the top two.
Nepal's batting looks thin, having largely failed to develop batsmen around the veteran batting trio of Paras Khadka, Gyanendra Malla and Sharad Vesawkar. Kenya have struggled against higher-class Associates, but have dominated teams below them, and may be a favorite to win Division Two. Namibia may also have favorable odds by virtue of being the tournament host, a historically significant advantage in WCL events.
The two outsiders should also pose a strong threat. Since making a splash with T20 wins over Afghanistan and Ireland between the 2015 World T20 qualifiers and the main event in India in 2016, Oman have quietly been climbing the 50-over ladder from Division Five in May 2016 to February's Division Two. A strong combination of spinners along with the left-arm fast bowling of Bilal Khan can take them even further.
Canada, desperate to regain the ODI status they lost in 2014, have been spearheaded by captain Nitish Kumar.
The only other question that remains is over the future of the WCL Championship. Other Associates will hope that the reward Netherlands earned by winning the tournament is not just a one-time deal. Ideally, it's not something Netherlands should have to sacrifice come 2023 either. Who is to say the 13-team ODI League could not expand by one more team.
For now, this tournament caps a remarkable tale of redemption for Netherlands. Borren will be 37 by the time the 13-team ODI League gets underway. In spite of his tongue-in-cheek prediction of playing 20 more years, he is far closer to the autumn. But his leadership over the past two years has planted the seeds for a spring in full bloom for the next generation of Netherlands cricket.