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Feature

Associate brigade look to deny Ireland at T20 World Cup Qualifier

UAE go in as tournament favourites, but don't rule out Canada, Nepal or the hosts Oman

UAE have won four of their last five T20Is against Ireland  •  Peter Della Penna

UAE have won four of their last five T20Is against Ireland  •  Peter Della Penna

After rampaging through the Men's T20 World Cup Qualifier in 2012 and 2013 as tournament favorites, not to mention ascending to Full Member status in 2017, Ireland arrive to the 2022 Men's T20 World Cup Global Qualifier A in Oman in the curious position where - at least on paper - they are not the tournament favorites. Both by ranking and by form, that distinction arguably rests with United Arab Emirates.
In the leadup to this eight-team tournament, UAE came out victorious in a four-team quadrangular series held in Oman among a group that also included Oman, Ireland and Nepal. They won two out of three matches, including a 13-run victory over Ireland. It's a margin that is more flattering to Ireland than the course of play demonstrated, and a result that is not an anomaly. In fact, UAE have won four of their last five T20Is against Ireland, including two of three immediately prior to the T20 World Cup in October.
The sting of being on the outside looking at the main event as it was happening on home soil has given UAE all the motivation they need to reach their first T20 World Cup since 2014. They're also a long way from where they were 29 months ago on the eve of the 2019 T20 World Cup Qualifier, also played in their backyard, when their squad was decimated by a match-fixing scandal that claimed numerous players including former captain Mohammad Naveed and star batter Shaiman Anwar.
It would be hard to find someone who could say with a straight face at the time that It would be one of the best things that ever happened to the UAE cricket system, but a proper cleanout not only left them with players fully committed to the cause, but also unearthed some hidden gems who might not have otherwise gotten opportunities stuck behind the likes of those who were allegedly undermining their own team-mates.
At the top of that list is Muhammad Waseem, a dashing opening batter who sunk Ireland last October with an unbeaten century and has shown no signs of slowing down in 2022, having bulldozed his way to 84 off 44 balls in his last innings prior to the start of the qualifier against Oman. But not far behind are 21-year-old legspinner Karthik Meiyappan and 19-year-old wicketkeeper Vriitya Aravind. Both were handed senior team debuts as teenagers in December 2019 in the immediate aftermath of the fixing saga and the wisdom of that is paying off with two years of experience now under their belts. Meiyappan took a four-for in a win over Ireland last October while Aravind struck an audacious half-century in a win over the same side last week. Combined with the experienced trio of captain Ahmed Raza, Rohan Mustafa and Zahoor Khan, it's no wonder why UAE are entering this event as the highest ranked team in Oman.
Meanwhile, Ireland appear to be stuck in a prolonged malaise. After being knocked out of the T20 World Cup by Namibia in October, their woes against Associates have not ceased. A visit to Florida in December saw them lose by 26 runs to USA before clawing out a nine-run win to escape with a series draw. Though they then went on to take two of three ODIs from the West Indies in January, their T20I form remains worrisome. After a nine-wicket win over Oman to kick off the T20I quad series, they fell once again to the UAE before scratching their way to 127 all out in a less than convincing 16-run win over Nepal.
The recurring theme is that if the top order doesn't score the bulk of the runs, Ireland are in trouble. Paul Stirling, Andy Balbirnie and Gareth Delany all pack a serious punch, but the lack of consistency down the order puts extreme pressure on the bowling unit to set up or defend low totals. Craig Young has been in solid form in Oman and will need to keep that up to give Ireland the best chance of beating UAE to finish at the top of their group.
In the same half of the draw as Ireland and UAE are underdogs Germany and Bahrain. Germany will lean heavily on the services of Dieter Klein and Michael Richardson, who both bring County cricket experience to the table from Leicestershire and Durham respectively. Bahrain's fielding may leave a lot to be desired, but they have some heavy hitters in the form of the opening combo of Muhammad Younis and Sarfaraz Ali.
The opposite half of the draw is a cricket version of the group of death. Oman, Nepal and Canada are expected to wage an intense battle to claim two semi-final berths on offer. Two years ago, it would have been a foregone conclusion that Oman would take one of the spots, particularly since they are hosting the event. But their opening round stumbles in the T20 World Cup in October exposed what is a rapidly aging squad. But just when alarm bells looked like they were ringing progressively louder after a pair of lopsided defeats to start off the T20I quad series last week, they came back on the final day to spring a shock upset of UAE as 40-year-old left-arm spinner Aamir Kaleem dipped his bowling hand in the fountain of youth to bag 5 for 29.
Allround superstar Aqib Ilyas recently announced he will miss six months while getting treatment for a benign tumor, and already his absence has been felt at the top of the batting order. It only adds to the pressure heaped on opener Jatinder Singh to make up for the runs lost from Ilyas. Captain Zeeshan Maqsood has gone from firecracker to accumulator with the bat, but he may need to turn back the clock to reprise the approach from his youth to give the batting unit the extra bit of oomph they've been missing. Maqsood is still more than handy leading the spin attack and the pace unit still has sharper teeth than most in the Associate world led by Bilal Khan.
Nepal has survived plenty of upheaval in the buildup to the tournament with Gyanendra Malla dumped as captain in favor of Sandeep Lamichhane. But the return of Pubudu Dassanayake as coach may have been just the elixir that was needed to wash away any ill feelings. Vice captain and allrounder Dipendra Singh Airee was in scintillating form in the T20I quad series, but the rest of the batting unit produced tepid displays.
Despite being the highest ranked team in their half of the draw, Nepal will also have to deal with the absence of Karan KC, who had traveled to Oman for the tournament but failed a fitness test on the eve of the event and will take no part. His death overs hitting was just as important as his new ball bowling and Nepal showed few signs of adequately replacing either during the quad series.
Canada may be ranked below both Oman and Nepal on paper, but are in excellent form leading into this tournament. They finished as runner-up to USA in the Americas Regional Qualifier, losing in a Super Over after a bizarre sequence in which USA stole two byes off the final ball of regulation. In past appearances at the global qualifier, Canada have traditionally started off red hot before fitness concerns have caught up to them and affected their performances the longer the group stage has dragged on. No better example of that came in 2019 when they ripped off three straight wins, including one over Ireland, to start off the event before losing three straight to fall short of the knockout stage.
Longtime stalwart Nitish Kumar is absent due to work commitments, but his runs are more than made up for by the emergence of the big hitting Rayyan Pathan, captain Navneet Dhaliwal, Ravinderpal Singh and Hamza Tariq. Matthew Spoors, an Australian-based player who qualifies as a dual citizen, is expected to make a big impact on his Canada tournament debut after impressing at the top of the order in warm-up games held in Oman. Former Pakistan Under-19 left-arm quick Kaleem Sana, who was ineligible for the Americas Regional Qualifier in Antigua, has now fully cleared ICC qualification protocols for his adopted country and will provide a significant boost to Canada's pace attack.
Making their ICC Global Qualifier debut, Philippines round out the tournament field. Eight of the 14 players are based in Australia (all of them are dual citizens by virtue of having at least one parent from the Philippines) and have varying degrees of grade cricket experience. The highest echelon player in their ranks is Dan Smith, spent eight years playing for Gordon CC in the Sydney Grade competition and briefly appeared for the New South Wales 2nd XI. If they can win a game, let alone qualify for the semi-finals after entering the event ranked 46th in the world, it would become one of the great underdog success stories in cricket history.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna