Namibia, Netherlands favourites for promotion
Six teams left New Zealand a year ago disappointed after a missed opportunity to reach next month's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The next eight days at ICC World Cricket League Division Two represent a chance for those six castoffs from the 2014 World Cup Qualifier - Canada, Kenya, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Uganda - to get back into the top flight of Associate cricket.
The top two finishers at the end of this event will join the six Associate nations who currently have ODI status to compete in the next editions of the ICC Intercontinental Cup and the World Cricket League Championship, which both begin later this year and stretch through 2017. Whoever wins the Intercontinental Cup will take on the lowest-ranked Full Member in the ICC Test Challenge in 2018. Here's a look at how each team shapes up at the start of Division Two in Namibia.
Kenya (5th place at 2014 World Cup Qualifier)
An Associate torchbearer through the 2000s, Kenya's fall from grace has been precipitous in the last few years culminating in a loss of ODI status after finishing out of the top four at last year's World Cup Qualifier. Last month's tour of Pakistan offered few signs that the decline will be arrested anytime soon. Their average score in five 45-over matches against Pakistan A was 109 and they were bowled out for under 100 on two occasions.
Rakep Patel was in solid form in November in a four-match series in Namibia and his presence was badly missed in Pakistan. He returns for this tournament to captain the squad. Kenya have a decent bowling attack with good balance between pace and spin but their batsmen struggle for consistency. The team's confidence took a beating at the hands of Pakistan A but other players coming back into the squad such as Irfan Karim and Collins Obuya must contribute immediately for Kenya to have the best chance of finishing in the top two.
Namibia (6th place at 2014 World Cup Qualifier)
Generally a team that tends to fly under the radar, Namibia have a strong nucleus that has been developed over the last several years. Captain Nicolaas Scholtz has had an excellent season so far with four fifties and a century in South Africa's domestic three-day competition while Raymond van Schoor has complemented him well in the middle order.
While Namibia's bowling unit isn't as potent as Kenya's, their batting is far stronger and they are capable of chasing down big totals. Central to that is the power supplied by the explosive Gerrie Snyman. After finishing runners-up in the Intercontinental Cup to Ireland in 2008 and fifth in 2013, Namibia are desperate to get back into the competition with a spot in the ICC Test Challenge at stake. They should be considered favourites for promotion on home soil.
Netherlands (7th at 2014 World Cup Qualifier)
Dutch cricket could have gone straight to pieces after a disastrous final day of the opening round at the qualifier in New Zealand against Kenya saw them lose ODI status. Instead, they recovered well enough to trump Ireland in an epic chase two months later at the World T20 to be the only Associate to progress to the second round. They nearly upset South Africa before a resounding win over England confirmed that ODI status or not, Netherlands are still plenty capable of competing with the big boys.
Two key components of their World T20 success, Tom Cooper and Timm van der Gugten, are absent from the squad for Division Two and that brings Netherlands back to the pack somewhat. However, the belligerent combo of Stephan Myburgh and Wesley Barresi are still around and support in the middle order from captain Peter Borren makes Netherlands the other promotion favourite alongside Namibia.
Canada (8th at 2014 World Cup Qualifier)
Canada's cupboard wasn't left totally bare after the retirements in the last few years of longtime stalwarts like John Davison and Ashish Bagai, but it was definitely depleted. Despite a genuine commitment to developing players through junior programs, the return on that investment is taking longer than expected.
Ruvindu Gunasekera is one player to come through Canada's junior ranks showing flashes of brilliance. The menacing left-hand batsman scored a century in a three-wicket win over Zimbabwe A in Harare four days ago. Like Kenya, though, Canada's batsmen struggle to piece together consistent performances. The Americas Region as a whole has gone south since Canada and Bermuda appeared together in the 2007 World Cup and that trend doesn't look like changing course in the near future. Canada are more likely to battle to avoid relegation than fight for promotion at this tournament.
Nepal (9th at 2014 World Cup Qualifier, promoted to Division Two after winning Division Three)
After appearing to be snakebitten at the qualifier in New Zealand, Nepal regrouped from a lousy experience and have come back a much stronger unit. They notched a pair of wins at the World T20 over Hong Kong and Afghanistan. Later in the year, they produced a clinical performance to finish Division Three champions for the second time in two years. A big part of that success has been Sompal Kami, who has quickly matured over the last 12 months into the fast-bowling messiah Nepal desperately needed to get on even footing with top-tier Associates.
Although Nepal went through their share of administrative troubles in 2014, two positives they achieved were securing the continued services of coach Pubudu Dassanayake and awarding central contracts to 22 players. It is hard to envision another instant relegation to Division Three again and if the chips fall right they have an outside chance at competing for one of the two promotion spots.
Uganda (10th at 2014 World Cup Qualifier, promoted to Division Two after finishing second at Division Three)
Captain Frank Nsubuga embodies his squad's ethos of making the most out of their talent. Uganda are an earnest, workmanlike crew who may arguably be the best fielding side in this tournament. Their hustle will keep opponents honest and Uganda's best chance to pounce will come against poorly disciplined opponents who underestimate the African side at their own peril.
Unfortunately, Uganda may find it hard to come across such teams at the Division Two level. While they are capable of causing an upset or two, Uganda are firm underdogs in this tournament and may spend most of the week fighting their way to stay out of the relegation zone.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna