Race for World Twenty20 spots begins
Tuesday marks the first day of what is anticipated to be a grueling 12-day ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier tournament in the UAE where 16 Associate and Affiliate teams will be vying for two open spots at the main event in Sri Lanka this September. Rest assured that whoever does make it through will have definitely earned it.
The 16 teams are split into two groups of eight and will play seven round-robin group matches in eight days to start off the event. The top three teams in each group will qualify for the knockout phase. The group winners face off against each other in the first qualifying final with the winner going to Sri Lanka and the loser getting a second crack at clinching a berth once the rest of the knockout phase unfolds.
The second and third place teams in each group face the possibility of playing four matches in three days during the knockout phase, meaning they may wind up playing 11 matches over 12 days in 30 degree Celsius conditions during the tournament, in order to claim one of the two available places alongside the ten Full Members at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20.
The team that successfully runs the gauntlet in the UAE will have the privilege of facing off against Australia and the West Indies in Sri Lanka. The runner-up at the qualifier gets to take on India, as well as reigning World Twenty20 champion England. Here's a run-down of what to expect over the course of the 72-game event spread across grounds in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Afghanistan enters the event as the defending champion from the qualifier in 2010 and it would take a solid effort from the other seven teams in Group A to keep them out of the top spot in round-robin play. Allrounder Mohammad Nabi took the most wickets at the Asian Twenty20 Cup in December and Mohammad Shahzad drew plaudits with his twin half-centuries in a three-day match in January playing for the ICC Combined Associate and Affiliate XI against England.
Netherlands should be confident of finishing in the top three as well with South Australia batsman Tom Cooper providing a lift. The squad is also bolstered by the addition of New South Welshman Timm van der Gugten, one of the few bright spots for the Dutch side at the Caribbean T20 when he took 5 for 21 against Sussex.
Group B frontrunners Ireland have two youngsters leading the way in Paul Stirling and George Dockrell. While Kevin O'Brien has been somewhat quiet in an Ireland shirt since his World Cup ambush of England, Stirling enters the tournament as the star. Two of his last four innings have been a 65 not out in a T20 against Kenya and 110 not out in a South Africa tour match against an Eastern Province Invitation XI. Ireland's recent strategy in the field shows how much faith they have in the spinner Dockrell, 19, with the captain William Porterfield tossing him the ball to open the bowling and choke runs from the start.
Namibia has the best chance of any of the non-ODI nations to finish in the top three in their group. Allrounder Louis van der Westhuizen, 23, has been haunting Kenyan bowlers in particular over the last nine months. He hit 159 not out off 70 balls against them in July, then followed that up in November with 145 off 50 balls, reaching his century in just 35 deliveries. He's consistently one of Namibia's leading wicket-takers as well.
The battle for the last playoff spots
The third spot in Group A could wind up being a dogfight between Canada, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. Canada will need a big contribution from the new captain Rizwan Cheema, who exploded onto the international scene in October 2008 with quick-fire innings of 89 and 61 in back-to-back ODIs against the West Indies as well as 68 in a T20 versus Sri Lanka, but the big hitter hasn't found the middle of the bat as much recently, failing to reach 50 in his last 24 innings in ODIs and T20s for Canada.
Geraint Jones gets a second life in international cricket with Papua New Guinea after his 34-Test career with England ended in the 2006-07 Ashes. Jones qualifies to play for PNG because he was born there and will provide experience to blend with the scrappy tenacity and never-say-die spirit typically associated with the Barramundis.
Hong Kong is the youngest squad in the tournament with an average age of 22.61, which isn't such a bad thing considering the three youngest squads at the same event in 2010 - Afghanistan, Netherlands and Ireland - all advanced to the Super Fours. Even with all the fresh blood, Hong Kong still has room for Munir Dar, 39. A cagey veteran, Dar hit 11 sixes at the Asian Twenty20 Cup in December, and will bowl his full quota of left-arm orthodox spin.
Kenya is the most vulnerable of the six ODI nations in this tournament of not reaching the knockout stage as they continue to rebuild following a sorry World Cup campaign last year. Scotland should finish in the top three in Group B, but their confidence may have been dented by back-to-back losses last week to the UAE in the World Cricket League Championship.
That might leave the door ajar for Italy or USA to sneak their way into the top three in Group B. Both sides have match winners in their ranks, with former Australian international Michael Di Venuto and Peter Petricola doing the lion's share of the work for the Italians while USA captain Sushil Nadkarni, a former India U-19 player, is capable of devastating the opposition at the top of the order.
Nepal, Denmark and Bermuda are the three teams most likely to be fighting to stay out of the cellar in Group A. As for Group B, Oman and Uganda might spring an upset or two but their overall chances of progressing into the knockout stage are slim.
Missing in action
While the pre-tournament buildup has garnered extra attention for the inclusion of Jones and Di Venuto in their respective squads, just as noteworthy are the key players not taking part. Irish wicketkeeper Niall O'Brien was left out of his country's squad after electing to skip their winter tour to the African continent in favor of a chance to play in the Bangladesh Premier League.
Ryan ten Doeschate ditched the Netherlands for a payday at the MiWAY Twenty20 domestic tournament in South Africa while the Afghanistan fast bowler Hamid Hassan hasn't played since injuring his knee trying to stop a boundary while playing for the ICC Combined Associates and Affiliates XI against England.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey