Afghanistan's climb up the world stage continued as they sealed promotion from World Cricket League Division 4, moving into the final alongside Hong Kong, in Dar-es-Salaam.
Going into the final day of the group stage, three sides were in contention for promotion but Italy, knowing they needed victory over Afghanistan to finish in the top two of the table, lost by 93 runs, thereby ending their dreams of playing in the 2011 World Cup.
Hong Kong defeated Jersey by 100 runs to seal second place in the group stage, while Fiji's dramatic four-run win over Tanzania means that Jersey and Fiji will be relegated to Division 5 on net run-rate, as all three teams were tied on two points.
For Afghanistan and Hong Kong the aim is to finish in the top two of the six-team Division 3 tournament in Argentina in January, which would mean they join 10 other sides at the World Cup Qualifier, where four Associate or Affiliate Members will qualify for the 2011 tournament in Asia.
At Leaders Club, Afghanistan posted an imposing target of 235 for Italy to win after another solid, mature and at times flamboyant batting performance. Rais Ahmadzai led the way with an excellently paced innings, scored at more than a run-a-ball, and hit two of the seven sixes scored in the innings, while Ahmad Shah (52) also played an important role.
In reply, Italy lost Thushara Kurukulasuriya to his first ball, before the Northcote brothers added 61 for the second wicket. But Italy's hopes suffered a blow when Andy Northcote (29) was run out by an excellent throw from man-of-the-moment Ahmadzai.
Then, Hamid Hassan changed the game permanently, first deceiving Nick Northcote with a cleverly disguised slower ball, and then earning the vital wicket of Joe Scuderi with a superb throw to gain a run out. When Hemantha Jayasena was also run out in the next over without facing as panic spread through the Italian batting line-up. In the end Afghanistan, were able to enjoy a comfortable victory.
Ahmadzai, who was named the Man of the Match after his crucial 68, was delighted with his side's promotion and said he was determined to win the final against Hong Kong.
"We are very happy. It's true that there was a little bit of tension amongst the guys last night, but the coach said we should go and play positive cricket," Ahmadzai said. "I was just concentrating on reading the wicket when I came into bat and then hitting the bad balls. The boys have done very well with the bowling, batting and fielding. We will try our best to win the final - we've already beaten Hong Kong in this tournament and we will try our best to do it again."
Immediately after the game Scuderi announced his retirement as a player, although he said he would continue as a coach. "You can't keep playing for ever - I'm 40 in December and my time has come now," he said. "Perhaps it is time for Italian cricket not to rely on me as much as it has done for the past 10 years."
In the other key promotion game, Butt Hussain missed out on his century in agonizing circumstances, run out backing up on 99, but his innings was instrumental in securing Hong Kong's passage to Division 3 with victory over Jersey. "It was a pleasure to play such an important innings at a crucial stage for our team. It was due as I was only scoring 30 or 40 runs in my innings - I wasn't scoring big scores," Hussain said.
After some excellent opening bowling from Ryan Driver and Anthony Kay, Hong Kong stuttered their way through the early overs. But a 119-run partnership between Hussain and Skhawat (47) transformed the game as Hong Kong's experience and class began to show as it made a challenging 234.
Jersey needed a good start, but a fine bowling display, particularly from Irfan Ahmed (3 for 10), ended any hopes as they were reduced to 134 all out.
In the other match of the day, Fiji finally registered their first win with a dramatic four-run defeat against Tanzania, with Simon Jepson's five wickets helping him win the Man-of-the-Match award.
Hong Kong A
Afghanistan vs Italy
Hong Kong vs Jersey
Tanzania vs Fiji
ICC World Cricket League Division Four