Test-nation gravitas spices up World Cup Qualifier

Jason Holder celebrates a wicket Getty Images

Late summer rains have blanketed all of Zimbabwe in the week leading up to the World Cup Qualifier. It's the sort of moody weather that will add a little more drama to the beginning of a journey for ten teams who all believe they are in with a shot at the final. This will be high-stakes cricket, with rain bound to be a factor at some point - yet another leveller in a playing field already sitting more or less at parity.

Yet, there are a couple of teams that, barring some disaster of form, we might call favourites. Afghanistan brim with quality and a confidence that seems increasingly intrinsic to their brand of cricket. They will be further buoyed by Rashid Khan's meteoric rise. Rashid, still a teenager, is set to become the youngest captain in international cricket history when he leads the team in its first match against Scotland, due to regular skipper Asghar Stanikzai having been temporarily laid low by appendicitis.

"It feels good to see that Afghanistan is a favourite to qualify," Rashid said with a smile at a pre-tournament press conference. "I think we should show it on the ground, it's not only on paper that we should look good."

West Indies have been in the country preparing for almost two weeks, and though their batsmen are clearly only going to start showing up once the actual tournament begins, having been bowled out cheaply in their two warm-up matches, they would have to play pretty badly to miss out on the final.

"We know what is at stake," said captain Jason Holder, who also telegraphed his long-term goals with: "We've done well in T20 cricket, we've done well in women's cricket and in Under-19 cricket. I think it's about time we win another World Cup." They'll have to qualify first.

Ireland are by some distance the most experienced squad at the tournament. Importantly they have it where it counts: ten players who were part of of their 2015 World Cup campaign, as well as a core group who were also at the 2011 event, are part of the 15-man group in Zimbabwe.

As the hosts, Zimbabwe are perhaps the romantic pick, but they are anybody's equal in ODIs at home and their success would breed a vibrant atmosphere and bring in crowds.

"It's very, very special for us to have such a big tournament in our country," said Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer. "With the home crowd behind us, we are confident about our chances." Attendance at the group matches is free of charge.

Whoever eventually makes it, the tournament abounds in quality cricketers and the gameplay will surely be absorbing. In attendance are the world's best bowler outside of Test cricket (though not for much longer) in Rashid and the Universe Boss Chris Gayle. There's also Mohammad Nabi's match-winning sangfroid, Sikandar Raza's all-round effervescence, Paul Stirling's devastating top-order hitting and Boyd Rankin's pace and bounce to look forward to. Adding to the roll call are iconic stars of the Associate scene such as Kyle Coetzer, Ryan ten Doeschate and Paras Khadka, and exciting rookies in Sandeep Lamichhane, Anshuman Rath and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.

This tournament will ask existential questions of almost every team. What would it mean for West Indies, winners of the inaugural World Cup in England more than 40 years ago, to miss out on the global event when it returns to England for the fifth time? Will the pressure make for a nervy campaign? What would it mean to Afghanistan to book their passage to a World Cup in England? Will the pressure of a home qualifier inspire Zimbabwe? And if they don't make it, how will they survive the next four years?

There is plenty of other motivation too. Ireland will be aching to back up their Test status with a commanding performance, while Netherlands could do with a morale boosting outing to show that their imminent return to ODI status is no fluke. Scotland will be defending the title they won four years ago, though this time around there is greater gravitas to the tournament. Netherlands, who won the World Cricket League Championship, and the three top finishers out of the Associates will also earn ODI status until 2022. During the qualifier, however, matches involving Netherlands or Nepal won't have ODI status

For Papua New Guinea, UAE, Nepal and Hong Kong, the qualifier is a chance to bloody the noses of those ahead of them in the pecking order, and possibly even go a step further. For them, success is unlikely but certainly not unthinkable.

The Zimbabwe set-up has hinted at seaming wickets, but spin, and particularly wristspin, will likely play a key role in the tournament. Aside from the clear and present danger of Rashid, there will also be Devendra Bishoo, Graeme Cremer, Lamichhane and Mujeeb to contend with. Another legspinner, UAE's Imran Haider, dismantled West Indies' middle order with 4 for 16 in a warm-up game. Many squads are also packed with fingerspinners.

With the domestic season having been postponed to allow Zimbabwe Cricket to focus entirely on this tournament, the pitches should be fresh, with possibly a little more pace and bounce than has been on show on Zimbabwean surfaces in recent times. But rain has also been around, and tracks that traditionally play slow and low could be very difficult to score on, at least until the sun comes out. The weather should dry out after the first round of games, but, at this time of the year, afternoon rain is so common that "scattered afternoon thunderstorms" is the cliched cover-all weather forecast for every day until April.

In that first round, each side will play the other teams in their group once, with the top three from each group progressing to the Super Six stage. All points won in the groups will be carried over to the Super Six stage apart from those gained against the bottom two from each group.

The context and conditions suggest that temperament could be the defining factor for any team's ultimate triumph. How they manage weather breaks, bowler-friendly pitches and the pressure of expectation will be fundamental. Though a World Cup trip to England is the goal, this is a potentially absorbing tournament in its own right.