After a physically demanding 56-game group stage at the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, six countries enter the knockout stage on Thursday with a chance to go to Sri Lanka in September for the 2012 ICC World Twenty20.
The round-robin group stage winners - Afghanistan and Namibia - will face off for a chance to clinch one of the two available spots in the 12-team main event. The second and third place teams in each group - Netherlands and Canada in Group A, Ireland and Scotland in Group B - will have to win three matches in three days, with the third game taking place on Saturday against the loser of the Afghanistan-Namibia contest, in order to claim the second available spot.
The two teams that clinch berths in the ICC World Twenty20 will then play in the tournament final on Saturday night. The winner will be slotted into Group B in Sri Lanka alongside Australia and the West Indies. The runner-up gets the consolation prize of Group A matches against India and reigning World Twenty20 champions England.
Afghanistan v Namibia (1st in Group A v 1st in Group B)
After a pair of tight victories to start off Group A against Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands, Afghanistan coasted through the rest of pool play to finish with seven wins from seven. Mohammad Shahzad and Karim Sadiq are second and third overall on the tournament runs aggregate list, with 261 and 255 respectively. When the team ran into trouble against PNG and Canada, Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shenwari contributed key half-centuries. If one member of the batting unit fails, someone is always ready to pick up the slack.
Dawlat Zadran has stepped up in the absence of Hamid Hassan to lead the bowling unit with 11 wickets, including 5 for 14 against Hong Kong. The spin trio of Sadiq, Shenwari and Zamir Khan have bowled economically and combined for 19 wickets.
They'll have their hands full against a very deep Namibia batting lineup which brutalised Group B bowling attacks to be the highest scoring team in the tournament and also finish undefeated. The Namibians batted first in six out of seven games, posting big totals to build scoreboard pressure. Raymond van Schoor has played a major role in that, leading the tournament in both runs and average with 323 at 80.75.
Louis van der Westhuizen scored one of the tournament's two centuries with 106 not out in 54 balls against Scotland and his strike rate of 172.72 is the best of anyone in the tournament with a minimum of 50 runs. Opener Gerrie Snyman is also a tone-setter: he is Namibia's third-highest scorer with 173 runs, 69% of which have come in fours and sixes.
Namibia had two close games against Ireland and Uganda, both of which were won by four runs. Their recipe for success against Scotland, USA and Italy was to bat them out of the game to mask an average bowling attack. They'll have to do the same if they are to come out on top against Afghanistan.
Ireland v Canada (2nd in Group B v 3rd in Group A)
William Porterfield and Ed Joyce have had their moments with the bat for Ireland but the unheralded Gary Wilson has been doing the dirty work down the order in Dubai to give them six wins out of seven in their group. He has made contributions with the bat in every innings to be the team's leading runscorer, with 206, and is third overall in average behind Shahzad and van Schoor at 51.50. His efforts both behind the stumps and with the bat have helped to fill the void left by Niall O'Brien.
Boyd Rankin didn't get to play in this tournament two years ago, missing it through injury. He's made the difference for Ireland over the last eight days, with 12 wickets. For players with a minimum of 10 overs bowled in the tournament, Rankin has the best economy at 3.69. George Dockrell, the left-arm spinner, has had a somewhat quiet tournament thus far, taking nine wickets with an economy of 5.91. He'll need to step up in the play-offs to give Ireland their best chance of winning, especially since John Mooney and Alex Cusack have both succumbed to injuries.
Canada lost heavily to Netherlands and Afghanistan and survived scares from Papua New Guinea and then Nepal on the last day of the group stage to finish third. Ruvindu Gunasekera leads the team with 230 runs, but 178 of those came by bullying the bottom two teams in Group A, Denmark and Bermuda. Otherwise, their batting has struggled against the teams in the top half of their group, with the best effort coming via Nitish Kumar's 57 in the six-run win over PNG.
The bowling hasn't been much better, with six of legspinner Junaid Siddiqui's 10 wickets coming against Hong Kong and Nepal. Canada's bowling unit is the weakest of the six teams that are in contention for the two qualifying spots and it would be a shock if they were able to put together a string of performances to catapult them into Saturday's final.
Netherlands v Scotland (2nd in Group A v 3rd in Group B)
Netherlands have been one of the most balanced and efficient teams in the tournament. They took Afghanistan into the last over before losing by four wickets with two balls to spare and, thanks to some key bowling at the death by Timm van der Gugten, held off Bermuda by four runs. Otherwise, Group A was a breeze as they finished with six wins and one defeat.
Stephan Myburgh notched three half-centuries at the top of the order but their best innings of the group stage came from Worcestershire batsman Alexei Kervezee, whose scored 58 at No. 4 against Afghanistan. Peter Borren hasn't had much work to do with the bat, but may be required for a rescue effort or two in the play-offs. With the ball he has 10 scalps, while Mudassar Bukhari has provided good support. Michael Swart's all-round skills have also been essential. He's second behind Myburgh with 191 runs and his offspin has taken eight wickets with an economy of 4.45.
Scotland scraped into third place in Group B after a shock defeat to USA on Tuesday nearly allowed Kenya to pass them on net run-rate. Had USA reached their target of 162 one ball sooner, Kenya would be playing Netherlands instead. Scotland were also thrashed by 49 runs against Namibia and were behind the eight-ball throughout their unsuccessful chase against Ireland.
Calum MacLeod's half-century was crucial in their hard fought win over Kenya and he also scored an unbeaten century against Oman. When MacLeod and Richie Berrington have clicked at the top, Scotland have had success; when they haven't the middle order has struggled to prop the team up and that played a part in Scotland's underwhelming group-stage showing.
With their captain, Gordon Drummond, and Gordon Goudie both going down injured, the responsibility has been left to Majid Haq and Preston Mommsen to take charge with the ball. Haq has responded with 12 wickets and Mommsen has eight. However, Scotland's catching and overall fielding was a major letdown in the loss to USA.
The winner of the Afghanistan-Namibia contest goes straight through to Saturday's final. The loser gets a rest day before taking on the last team standing from the other side of the draw. The winner of Ireland-Canada will take on the winner of the Netherlands-Scotland on Friday for the right to play the loser of Afghanistan-Namibia on Saturday morning. Whichever team wins that match will take the second spot in Saturday night's final - the only match in the tournament to be played under the lights at Dubai Sports City. Both finalists gain a place at the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
Edited by Alan Gardner
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey