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January 16, 2007
On Wednesday, a day short of eight weeks before the World Cup opens in Jamaica, the final run-in for the Associates begins in the relative backwater of Mombasa with a tri-series between Kenya, Scotland and Canada. This is in itself a warm-up for the World Cricket League, featuring the six leading Associates, which starts in Nairobi on January 30, and it has even more significance for Canada and Kenya who meet in each other in their opening game in the World Cup.
Kenya travel to the coast on the back of three weeks intensive training in Nairobi, and it is widely thought that the squad is, by and large, the one that will go to the Caribbean. Only some poor personal performances could cause a rethink. Boosted by the return of Ravi Shah at the top of the innings, the middle order, built on the experience of Steve Tikolo and the youth of Tanmay Mishra, may finally have a start to build on. Given home advantage and on the back of a reasonable 2006, they should be the team to beat.
The self-imposed absence of Kennedy Otieno, their veteran wicketkeeper-batsman, has opened up a competition to fill his boots, and David Obuya and Maurice Ouma will both be under pressure to score runs. Tony Suji will also be under scrutiny; in 53 ODIs he averages 13.48 with one fifty, and his inclusion is largely due to his hundred in a dead game against Namibia in 2005.
Scotland, who arrive on the back of a disappointing draw against UAE which will probably knock them out of the Intercontinental Cup, are wobbling at the wrong time. They came off the rails in Bangladesh in December - but then again Zimbabwe were hammered as well shortly before, and Kenya were routed there earlier in the year - and struggled in Sharjah.
But in Craig Wright they have one of the game's most doughty international captains, and they also boast two England players - Dougie Brown and Gavin Hamilton - in their ranks. They have more experience than any of the other Associates, courtesy of their participation in English domestic cricket, but this event might be what they need to dust off remaining cobwebs before Nairobi.
Canada's travel arrangements mean they will hardly have recovered from a gruelling 24-hour Toronto-London-Nairobi-Mombasa plane trip - they arrived early this morning - by the time they take on Scotland on Thursday. One of the Kenyans, who did the same trip in reverse in August, told me that his team-mates were like zombies when they took to their field then. Add the heat and humidity of the East African coast, and only two days to familiarise themselves with playing conditions, and it is hard to see how they can hope to do justice to themselves straight away.
The Canadian selectors have certainly left themselves open for criticism in their surprise selection of 40-year-old Anderson Cummins, the former West Indies allrounder who has been out of mainstream cricket for a decade. Quite what message handing a debut call-up to someone of his age gives to other aspiring Canadian cricketers one can only guess at. It is also not unreasonable to point out that 12 of the 15-man squad were born in Asia or the Caribbean - that compares with four of the Scotland side born outside the country and two of the Kenyans, although Indian-born Mishra moved when a youngster. However, all those participating have qualified according to ICC regulations as they stand.
The conditions in Mombasa will be far removed from those expected in the Caribbean. While the heavy rain lashing Kenya in recent weeks has relented, the pitches are expected to be on the slow side, with something there for spinners, although good batsmen should prosper. The venue only made its ODI debut in November, and so outclassed were Bermuda in the three one-dayers played then that it's hard to read too much into those performances.
The Mombasa Sports Club is a rarity in that it features a large mango tree inside the boundary. The venue is one a lovely one - I was fortunate enough to play there in a tour match a few years ago - and the welcome will be among the warmest anywhere. That will be appreciated by Darrell Hair, who will make his first appearance as an umpire since being banned by the ICC from matches involving any Full Member countries.
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