The unmatchable drama of the World Cricket League, as the earth has known it for the last 11 years, is rounding the final bend this month in Oman. The ICC's announcement last month of a redesigned pathway for Associates to reach the World Cup means the six-team WCL Division Three event beginning on Friday will be the penultimate tournament under the WCL structure that has been in place since 2007.
Though relegation has effectively been eliminated at this event, the context could not be greater with promotion on the line for the top two teams. The winners and runners-up in Oman will advance to next April's Division Two tournament in Namibia where the top four teams will get ODI status and a spot in the Cricket World Cup League Two and a guaranteed 36 ODIs through 2021. Failure to finish in the top two in Oman means no ODI status and a guarantee of just 15 List A matches through 2021 as part of the new Cricket World Cup Challenge League.
Here's a rundown of the six teams gunning for promotion over the next 11 days:
Fifth place at 2018 WCL Division Two, relegated to Division Three
Canada's spot in the 2018 World Cup Qualifier was famously usurped by Nepal thanks to a 51-run tenth-wicket stand on the final day of round-robin play, but Oman's fate was arguably decided just as dramatically over the course of one week in Namibia last February. Oman handed 4-1 Nepal their only loss in group play and were in dominant positions against both Namibia (defending 165, they had Namibia 65 for 7 in the 16th over) and UAE (chasing UAE's 159, they were 93 for 3 in the 27th over) before faltering badly on both occasions to end up relegated at 2-3.
Most recently, Oman got off to a sensational start at the Asia Cup Qualifier with wins over Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore. Yet a no-result against Hong Kong left them needing a win over UAE to secure a spot in the final. In a bit of déjà vu, they stumbled once again to lose by 13 runs. Dating back to their epic upset of Ireland at the opening round of the 2016 World T20, Oman have shown they have the quality to take down top-tier Associates but they must now show at Division Three that they can maintain consistency in a tournament format where hosts have traditionally held an overwhelming advantage.
Player to watch: Bilal Khan
USA's Ali Khan has been in the Associate world headlines this summer for his growing collection of T20 franchise deals, and his Omani namesake left-arm speedster is arguably Ali's equal in the pace department. Bilal can reverse-swing it at 135-140 kph and land searing yorkers when necessary. He tied with Nepal's Sandeep Lamichhane for the tournament lead taking 17 wickets at Division Two in February, and caused fits at the Asia Cup Qualifier with another 10 in five matches.
Sixth place at 2018 WCL Division Two, relegated to Division Three
Kenya's mighty fall from grace continued in Namibia where they went winless over eight days against teams they wouldn't have dreamed of losing to 15 years earlier at the height of their powers during a semi-final run at the 2003 World Cup. An administrative shake-up followed the debacle in Namibia with Cricket Kenya chief Jackie Janmohamed and two others resigning less than a week later.
But the players have mostly come out unscathed from February's mess as Kenya have only made two changes to the squad for Oman. Collins Obuya, one of the last holdovers from the 2003 glory days, is one of several who need to step up with the bat to shore up a frail middle order to give Kenya a chance at climbing back up the Associate ladder.
Player to watch: Dhiren Gondaria
The 23-year-old top-order batsman can give it a healthy whack when he's in a good mood. He was Kenya's leading scorer at 2018 Division Two with 167 runs, including two fifties. More recently, he topped Kenya's run charts again at the Africa T20 Region B Qualifier with 266 runs, including 90 off 46 balls in the opener against Uganda.
Third place at 2017 WCL Division Three
An often overlooked team out of a highly competitive Asia region, Singapore missed out on promotion to Division Two last year on net run rate despite beating Canada, who were promoted ahead of them to Namibia with both sides equal at 3-2. While Singapore do not have the top-to-bottom depth of other teams, they still possess players with match-winning capability.
Among those who fit that category is Anish Paraam, their leading scorer not only at the last Division Three in Uganda but more recently again at the Asia Cup Qualifier where he made 218 runs, including a century in Singapore's lone win against Malaysia. Legspinner Anantha Krishna led the team with 10 wickets at the last Division Three in Uganda and could be even more potent on the expected spin-friendly tracks in Oman.
Player to watch: Chetan Suryawanshi
The do-it-all captain is Singapore's most consistent batsman, keeps wicket and, if the occasion calls for it, will take off his pads mid-innings to roll his arm over. Whereas most of Singapore's batsmen opt for orthodox cricket, the former Kolkata Knight Riders squad member isn't afraid to shuffle around the crease and give it a whack to keep bowling units off balance.
Fourth place at 2017 WCL Division Three
The Americans come into the tournament under a cloud of turmoil with Ibrahim Khaleel sacked just over a month ago as captain in an episode that exposed friction within the squad. The squad instability continued through October at the CWI Super50 Cup in Barbados as three more players - David Wakefield, Srini Salver and Usman Ashraf - were dumped after just a handful of matches in favor of two US passport-holders contracted to Barbados: Hayden Walsh Jr. and Aaron Jones.
This will be USA's fifth crack at trying to overcome their Division Three jinx, having failed during previous attempts in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017. In spite of an impressive win over Jamaica to end the Super50 Cup on a high, the odds are stacked against USA thanks to their losing record against each opponent at Division Three. Singapore (3-2), Kenya (3-0), Uganda (3-1), Oman (5-4) and Denmark (6-2) all have the edge in head-to-head competition against USA in one-day cricket, including six straight wins for Denmark and four in a row by Oman.
Player to watch: Monank Patel
The former Gujarat Under-17 batsman was the standout player at USA's squad selection camp in Texas this past June scoring an unbeaten century off 80 balls. He showed it was no fluke by scoring 109 in the win against Jamaica late last month to finish as USA's leading scorer at the Super50 Cup with 290 runs.
First place at 2018 WCL Division Four, promoted to Division Three
After suffering the rare fate of relegation as tournament hosts last year, Uganda gained promotion straightaway in dramatic fashion last May in Malaysia, winning Division Four by holding their nerve in a pair of thrillers to finish off round-robin play against Denmark (one-run win on DLS Method), and Jersey (defending 90 to win by seven runs). Captain Roger Mukasa had the Midas touch on both occasions, taking five wickets for 10 runs across five overs bowled in crunch time.
Uganda's resurgence has coincided with the recent influx of Asian players into the squad. Foremost among them is Irfan Afridi, the nephew of former Pakistan captain Shahid, who finished as the leading wicket-taker at Division Four with 15 scalps.
Player to watch: Dinesh Nakrani
Since the dynamic Kenneth Kamyuka migrated to Canada in 2009, Uganda's line-up over the last decade has mostly consisted of grinders. But the 27-year-old former Saurashtra batsman Nakrani has added some muscle to the batting order since qualifying on residency earlier this year. Nakrani was the leading scorer at the Africa T20 Region B Qualifier with 320 runs, including 88 not out against Kenya in the tournament opener and an unbeaten 102 off 50 balls in the rematch victory over Kenya.
Second place at 2018 WCL Division Four, promoted to Division Three
Coach Jeremy Bray's charges raced out to three wins at Division Four in May before surviving two late stumbles against Uganda and Vanuatu to narrowly gain promotion on the net-run-rate tiebreaker over Malaysia into Division Three. On paper there is nothing terribly intimidating about the Danes, but they possess the necessary skills for and against spin to thrive in Omani conditions.
Leading the Danes is 26-year-old Brondby product Hamid Shah, who has progressed through Denmark's junior squads to become a confident captain and batsman. Hamid made 90 earlier this week in a warm-up against the UAE and was Denmark's most consistent batsman in Malaysia, finishing with 179 runs at an average of 59.66. He was only outdone on aggregate by the evergreen wicketkeeper-batsman Freddie Klokker, who scored 221 runs including an unbeaten century against Bermuda.
Player to watch: Nicolaj Laegsgaard
The towering 21-year-old left-arm spinner was a medium-pacer before coach Bray converted him into a spinner two years ago. Laegsgaard made his international debut in Malaysia taking two wickets in three matches but with a stifling 2.80 economy rate as his height and bounce caused plenty of problems. His confidence has grown even more this summer after taking a team-best nine wickets in five matches to help Denmark to an undefeated record at the Europe T20 Region A Qualifier.