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Afghanistan, Ireland prepare for Associate swansong

With the final round of matches in the Intercontinental Cup set to kick off on November 29, it will be the last time these two new Test teams will feature in Associate cricket's most important multi-day tournament

Rashid Khan's googlies got him the first three England Lions wickets, Afghanistan v England Lions, 4 day match, Abu Dhabi, day 1, December 7, 2016

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On June 5, 2015 in Scotland's city of Stirling, few signs portended Afghanistan's future status at the end of their opening-round match of the Intercontinental Cup. The team had mostly sat through dreary, wet conditions over the course of the previous four days before slipping to 94 for 8, eventually conceding a 98-run first-innings lead to Scotland in a drawn match.
Afghanistan were just two months removed from their first World Cup appearance, where their lone win came in a one-wicket thriller against Scotland in Dunedin, and still struggling - at times - to assert themselves consistently against Associate competition. Later that same summer, at the World T20 Qualifier in Scotland and Ireland, losses to Oman and Hong Kong put them in a precarious position: needing to finish on top in a must-win encounter against Papua New Guinea at Malahide, failing which they would miss out on the 2016 World T20 in India.
Two and a half years later, things are much sunnier on the eve of the final round of I-Cup in Abu Dhabi than they were in Stirling, both on and off the field. Afghanistan have had five straight wins in the I-Cup, including four on the trot by an innings. They have turned into demons in the shorter forms as well, using victories over Zimbabwe and West Indies at the 2016 World T20 to catapult themselves past Ireland as the pre-eminent Associate. That is, until Afghanistan was granted Test status and Full Membership along with Ireland by the ICC in June.
The next four days are Afghanistan's swansong on the Associate-cricket scene. Currently first on the I-Cup table, 12 points ahead of Ireland, a win over UAE will give them their second I-Cup title. It would be the perfect finish before they begin to fully embark on Test cricket.
"It's been quite a good journey the last six or seven years starting from 2010, I-Cup games," allrounder Mohammad Nabi said on the eve of the match while reflecting on Afghanistan's journey. "We played our first game against Zimbabwe A and we enjoyed that. It's quite good memories over the years, quite good wins as well. The first time we played the I-Cup, we won the title as well.
"People think that Afghanistan just plays the T20 game well, but I know Afghanistan team plays four-day and Test very well because of quality spinners and quality fast bowlers. We have the kind of batsmen that can play four-day and Tests."
Though they won the 2009-10 I-Cup and had a strong record over the course of the 2011-13 I-Cup campaign, Afghanistan were beaten convincingly by Ireland in the final. It showed they still had a learning curve to work their way through. Their next cycle that started in 2015 got off to an inauspicious start, but part of their dominance - since that damp week in Stirling - can be traced to the emergence of a new wave of talent.
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine life without Rashid Khan in an Afghanistan shirt but he was still many months away from making his senior team debut when the draw wrapped up in Scotland. In left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan, Afghanistan have found a solid foil for Rashid, creating a left-right one-two wrist-spinning tag team to keep opposition batsmen constantly under threat in multi-day cricket.
Nawroz Mangal's retirement has opened the door for the next generation of batsmen too. Nasir Jamal and Ihsanullah Janat have ensured there has been no drop-off in scoring since coming into the team, easing the pressure off captain Asghar Stanikzai and Nabi.
But this round is not just about saluting Afghanistan into the Full-Member world. Ireland, too, have a point to prove, that they merit their promotion to Full Membership not just on past glories but on current form. Unlike the conveyor belt of talent coming through the Afghanistan pipeline, Ireland have struggled when age and injuries have caught up with them.
Ed Joyce, Ireland's finest-ever batsman, has been laid low for much of the past six months by a series of ailments and appears to be hanging by a thread to be able to take the field for the maiden Test against Pakistan in May 2018. Boyd Rankin has similarly been troubled by the injury bug, exposing a lack of depth and variety in the pace bowling department.
Regardless of whether or not Ireland field a full-strength side in Dubai, Scotland will be raring to knock them off in an effort to make a major statement that the promotion of Associates to Full Members should not stop at Ireland and Afghanistan. Their recent four-day record is deceiving. The most snake-bitten team weather-wise, Scotland have four draws - all three home matches were heavily affected by rain - in six matches plus an abandonment against Hong Kong when all four days were wiped out in Mong Kok. Even their one result, a loss to Netherlands, had the entire first day lost due to a wet outfield in Voorburg.
Yet, Scotland were finalists in 2010 and over the past year have shown signs in other formats that they are narrowing the gap with Ireland and Afghanistan. After reaching the semi-finals of the Desert T20 Challenge to start the year, they recorded 50-over wins against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe during the home summer. A win over Ireland would be another feather in their cap in an impressive 2017.
Netherlands are also looking to firm up third place with a win over Namibia. Finishing right behind Ireland and Afghanistan in the four-day competition, coupled with a possible first-place finish in the WCL Championship (to earn a spot as the 13th team in the proposed ODI league) would go a long way to enhancing their claims for more opportunities against Full Members beyond the guaranteed matches that would come via the ODI league.
But more than anything else, this week is Afghanistan's opportunity to bask in Associate glory one last time. Six months ago, they would have needed a win in this final match to give themselves a shot at Test cricket. The ICC's decision in June to grant them Test status took that pressure of a win off them.
However, this is a prideful team. They are proud of their Associate roots, proud of the opportunities they have earned through the merit-based Associate pathways, and proud to claim one more piece of Associate hardware before heading out into a brave new world as a Test nation.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna