The Big Picture
South Africa are hosting not one but two large tournaments in the coming weeks. The country has only just been unveiled as the venue for the Indian Premier League, yet already the interest has begun to dwarf that of the World Cup Qualifiers which gets underway on April 1.
The disparity between the two events, both in terms of ability and prestige, could not be greater. The gold, glitz and sheer opulence of the IPL contrasts against 12 sides as diverse and hotchpotch as Oman, Ireland, Afghanistan and Denmark, each of whom are battling for four places in the 2011 World Cup. With that comes not millions of dollars, nor the adulation of millions of fans, but an arguably greater honour in representing one's country alongside the world's best. In addition, the top six will qualify for ODI status and, with it, a sizeable increase in funding, even if Lalit Modi would scoff at such minuscule sums.
While Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals and company do battle, the latest chapter in a far more poignant story begins on Wednesday when Afghanistan begin their campaign. They have now won their last three tournaments on the trot; amazing for a war-torn country who only began playing serious cricket since the fall of the Taliban. "We want a good relationship with the world and to show we are not warrior people," said their batsman, Raees Ahmadzai, this week. For all their undoubted cricketing ability, their story of rising from oppression is a reminder that cricket remains a simplistic game of entertainment, of bat and ball and of enjoyment. No amount of money can pay for that, and Afghanistan have every chance of going all the way over the next three weeks.
With a number of gifted and experienced players, Canada is that rare Associate nation where cricket is gradually expanding in schools and not relying largely on immigrants' passion for the game. Consistency is their problem; they have the potential to beat most Associates, and in theory should breeze past the Affiliate nations, yet often let themselves down, as their warm-up defeat to Zimbabwe A showed. Much rests on the shoulders of their wicketkeeping captain, Ashish Bagai.
Player to watch - John Davison Thirty-eight years-old but few batsmen hit the ball harder. A match-winner when chasing.
Warm-up form Beat Easterns XI by 113 runs. Comfortably beaten by Zimbabwe A, and again by Netherlands who set them a huge 306 to win.
Prediction Could slip up against Uganda before the Super Eights and may struggle to beat Ireland.
Favourites for the World Twenty20 Qualifiers last year, Ireland are again at the top of the pecking order for this event. However, as they found out in Kenya in 2006, for the World Cricket League Division 1, nothing can be taken for granted. They have the players to beat all-comers; the only question remains whether they can handle the pressure against opposition whose free-spiritedness often takes more accomplished sides by surprise.
Player to watch - Niall O'Brien Last year's Associate Player of the Year and for good reason. A classy, combative batsman and fierce competitor.
Warm-up form Lost to Zimbabwe A and Easterns XI but recovered to beat UAE and Afghanistan.
Prediction If their bowlers can support Ireland's depth in batting, they could go all the way.
Realistically, Namibia have only an outsider's chance of reaching the top four and thus qualifying for the World Cup. An impressive four-day side - they reached the final of the ICC Intercontinental Cup last year - they've struggled to adapt their game to the shorter format, but they did beat Bermuda in a warm-up last week. Much rests on the shoulders of Gerrie Snyman who hits the ball a very long way and bowls tidy seam-up.
Player to watch - Gerrie Snyman A strokemaker to watch. Averaged 147 in the 2007 Intercontinental Cup including 196 against UAE.
Warm-up form Beat Bermuda by six wickets on Saturday, with Sarel Burger cracking 54.
Prediction Unlikely to reach the top four unless Snyman's heroics can inspire the rest of the batting.
The ACC Challenge champions, Oman have gradually worked their way up through the divisions with a number of impressive performances. This latest challenge, however, is by far the toughest. They have had sporadic success against UAE, Namibia and Uganda, but the likes of Ireland and Scotland and Kenya outrank them in both ability and experience. They are in reasonable form, however, beating an Easterns XI and Afghanistan last week. Though the chances of reaching the final four are slim, the knowledge they will gain should stand them in good stead for the future.
Player to watch - Hemin Desai Topped the runs for Oman in the ICC World Cricket League Division 2 in Windhoek.
Warm-up form Maqsood Hussain starred in their thrashing of Easterns XI and they followed it up with a five-wicket win over Afghanistan, though they lost their next encounter on Saturday.
Prediction Should challenge Namibia, but Ireland and others ought to be much too disciplined.
Not the favourites, but neither are they the underdogs. Ireland may outrank them, but Scotland are a highly organised side who will challenge all teams in all facets of the game. They are the fittest, too, following a new strenuous regime-change. Their foundations behind the scene are strong, too: if they qualify for the 2011 World Cup, they have promised to double the number of players on professional contracts to six. Associate and Affiliate players so often have to mix their full-time jobs with playing for their country, so this is a giant leap forward. Their captain, Ryan Watson - upon whom so much rests - has lost nearly two stone in weight and is confident that this is the best-prepared Scotland side he has ever captained.
Player to watch - John Blain An English-style seamer and canny to boot.
Warm-up form Beat two university sides but lost to Gauteng Lions when they were skittled for 137, then lost to Kenya at the weekend by 7 runs.
Prediction Mentally and physically strong, they just need consistent performances from Watson, Gavin Hamilton and Blain to challenge the best.
Arguably the most exciting African nation to be making their way up the ranks, Uganda are an interesting prospect. Physically they are very fit, largely thanks to their South African coach, Barney Mohamed, who has instilled in them a belief in themselves which is beginning to bear fruition. Consistency, as ever, is a problem - their batting has a horrible tendency to randomly implode - but with an outstanding youth development scheme, helping to promote the game among schools, the signs are encouraging for the future.
Player to watch - Kenneth Kamyuka One of the tournament's must-see players, Kamyuka is an explosive opening bowler and can add savage late-order runs. A potential match-winner with bat or ball.
Warm-up form Lost to Western Province; beat Boland and then defeated Denmark by two wickets. Their talented captain, Junior Kwebiha, scored 39.
Prediction A wild card for the final four if the likes of Bermuda and Netherlands are caught napping.
The team to watch. Afghanistan have injected enthusiasm and, just as importantly, publicity into Affiliate cricket which inevitably rarely attracts much attention. Their story is undoubtedly compelling; a group of players from a country ravaged by war, where the Taliban banned the game, now stand on the threshold of rubbing shoulders with the world's best. It doesn't end there. Their cricket is entertaining, their players talented and aggressive and they have now won three consecutive World Cricket League titles on the bounce. Hope is rapidly being replaced by belief, a sentiment beginning to be shared by Kabulites themselves.
Player to watch - Hamid Hassan A bustling, nagging fast bowler with excellent control, and a former member of the MCC groundstaff.
Warm-up form Not a good start. Lost to Oman and Ireland before bouncing back against Oman again with a four-wicket win.
PredictionIf they hit the ground running, momentum and sheer belief might take them to the final, but it's difficult to see how they will consistently challenge in the Super Eights.
As ever, if Bermuda play to their ability they will beat most teams. Yet this hasn't been the case for some time, despite large funding from the government which has yet to bear much fruit. This time it could be different though: they have spent several weeks training in the West Indies where the results, while mixed, showed a huge improvement in the consistency of their top order. Lionel Cann, a flamboyant strokemaker, has so often been left to clean up the dregs. Perhaps now is his time to be let loose. While in West Indies Gus Logie, their coach, organised a training camp - or "brutal boot camp", as Cann put it, which is another encouraging sign that the perceived apathy of the past is now a distant memory.
Player to watch - Dwayne Leverock Offers control and is a wicket-taking left-arm spinner. Don't rule him out fielding at slip again after that catch.
Warm-up form Beat Northerns XI and an Academy side but lost to Namibia.
Prediction Should reach the Super Eights, but they can't rely solely on David Hemp if they're to make it to the final.
Cricket remains a minor sport in a country obsessed by football, but the Danes have potential - as demonstrated in their third-place finish in the European Championship last year. Freddie Klokker, the captain, is a compact and talented left-hander who has played for Derbyshire, and led his side to a 21-run win over Uganda in the World Cricket League Division 2. This tournament, however, is all about laying a bedrock for the future.
Player to watch - Bobby Chawla The legspinner took ten wickets in the WCL Division 2 to help Denmark qualify for this tournament.
Warm-up form Lost to two club sides but beat an Eastern Province Invitational XI by four wickets.
Prediction Even the underdog tag may be a little generous, but much depends on Klokker's batting. Need early victories.
Kenya have had a difficult few years. In terms of pure ability, they still possess some of the most gifted in Associate cricket, but boardroom battles and payment disputes have seeped their poisonous ways into their performances on the pitch. The year 2008 was near enough a disaster: they lost to a school/club side on their tour of Britain and later were accused of poor behaviour and dissent by another team in Devon. When Ireland rolled them for an abject 67, it spelled the end of their qualification for this year's World Twenty20, and drew the curtains on an awful 12 months for one of Associate cricket's top nations. They have, however, unearthed one of the most talented batsmen for years in Seren Waters; and their evergreen captain, Steve Tikolo, remains near the top of his game.
Player to watch - Seren Waters He has already signed an emerging players contract with Surrey, but for now remains committed to Kenya. And they need him. He made 75 against Ireland and a composed 74 against South Africa in a full ODI.
Warm-up form Beat a university side but lost to a second-string Titans. Scored a seven-run win over Scotland.
Prediction Almost impossible to gauge how they will fare. Early victories are vital for their confidence, otherwise implosion could be on the cards.
That they managed to qualify for this summer's ICC World Twenty20 showed the ability that lurks within, but Netherlands' inconsistency continues to prevent them from regularly challenging the best. With Peter Drinnen on board (former Scotland coach and victim of a whispering campaign against him), along with Roland Lefebre - the former allrounder - they have a solid support staff. They could just as easily cause an upset as they could be routed.
Player to watch - Ryan ten Doeschate Probably the best player in the tournament, and head and shoulders above his team-mates. Their success depends on him.
Warm-up form Lost to Hampshire but beat Boland, Glamorgan and Canada at the weekend.
Prediction Lots of ifs. If they're on top of their game, and if other teams aren't, they have a strong chance.
With Pakistan off the agenda for touring teams, cricket in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will increasingly host high-profile tournaments and series, and the UAE side will soon have neighbourhood access to some of the world's most prestigious facilities once the Dubai Sports City and the ICC's academy are finally built. They won Division 2 of the WCL and are a side packed to bursting with batsmen. Their standout player, Saqib Ali, cracked a hundred in the ACC Trophy Elite event last year and is a consistent bedrock of stability to the line-up.
Player to watch - Saqib Ali Former captain carved a brilliant 195 against Ireland last year, albeit in a losing cause. Enjoys time at the crease but can be explosive when needed.
Warm-up form Lost to Ireland by eight wickets - rolled for 132.
Prediction Plenty of potential, but inexperience will cost them dear.