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Feature

T20 World Cup Qualifier B: Zimbabwe look to get out of form rut; USA, Jersey could spring upsets

How the eight teams stack up ahead of the T20 World Cup qualifying event to be held in Bulawayo

Blessing Muzarabani, back with his national team after a stint with IPL team Lucknow Super Giants, sent back Ibrahim Zadran, Zimbabwe vs Afghanistan, 1st ODI, Harare, June 4, 2022

Zimbabwe have lost six of eight T20Is they have played this year  •  AFP/Getty Images

A T20 World Cup qualifying process that began in October with regional pathway events is set to conclude this month in Zimbabwe as eight teams duke it out for the last two spots up for grabs in this year's ICC showpiece event in Australia.
Though this event features both champion and runners-up of the 2019 T20 World Cup Qualifier held in the UAE - Netherlands and Papua New Guinea respectively - it is anything but a foregone conclusion that either side will make a second straight trip to the T20 World Cup. Among the other six challengers, there is far more parity than was evident at the corresponding eight-team global qualifier held last February in Oman. And as Oman can attest, being the tournament hosts for the qualifier does not portend a cakewalk for Zimbabwe by any stretch of the imagination in this short format.
The eight teams in the qualifying process have been split into two groups of four. Each team plays three round-robin matches, after which the top two teams in each group pair off in crossover semi-final matches. Unlike the knockout structure of most T20 franchise leagues, there is no second chance for the teams that top their respective groups. When it comes to the playoff stage of this qualifier, win the semi-final and you're in the World Cup. Lose and you get nothing. Here's a look at each team in this month's event in Bulawayo.

Group A

Zimbabwe
An ICC suspension because of governance issues meant Zimbabwe's players were denied an opportunity to take part in the qualifying process for the most recent T20 World Cup, held last year in the UAE. But Zimbabwe have been given an opportunity to get back into the T20 World Cup field by being able to play this event in home conditions. In order to do that, though, they will need to get out of the form rut they have experienced in the format in 2022, having lost six of eight T20Is, all of them at home. That includes not only a three-match loss against Afghanistan last month in Harare, but more ominously going down 3-2 to Namibia in a series held in Bulawayo in May.
However, Zimbabwe were missing some key players for the series against Namibia, none more than the pace duo of Blessing Muzarabani and Richard Ngarava, and allrounder Sean Williams. Each possesses assets that are hard to find at the Associate level and their return will help ease the burden on star allrounder Sikandar Raza and captain Craig Ervine. Zimbabwe's talent depth might not seem deep on paper compared to other Full Members, but it still has the quality that most Associates would dream of and it would be a shock to not see them advance to the semi-finals.
United States of America
The champion from the Americas regional qualifier turned heads in December when they beat Ireland in a T20I in Florida by 26 runs despite having numerous key players ruled out because of Covid. They also notched a victory on July 6 over the Netherlands in a tournament tune-up match in Zimbabwe, chasing a target of 145 with six wickets and four balls to spare. But Netherlands restored order a day later by holding USA to 130 before knocking off the runs with 28 balls remaining in a seven-wicket win. Like Zimbabwe, USA also fell to Namibia twice in the lead-up to this event, including an inability to defend a total of 194 followed by a nine-wicket mauling 24 hours later in Windhoek when the hosts dusted off a target of 137 with four overs to spare.
USA have risen to the occasion at past T20 World Cup Qualifier tournaments to register wins over Scotland in 2010 and 2012, as well as a pair of wins over Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea in Dublin in 2015 when both had ODI status. And they did all of those feats without a trump card like pace star Ali Khan. But USA is far from a one-man band. Captain Monank Patel has been in sizzling form while Gajanand Singh, who scored a half-century in the win over Ireland, has quickly become one of the best finishers on the Associate circuit since his debut in September 2021. However, the absence of Hampshire allrounder Ian Holland, who was their leading wicket-taker at the regional final in November, leaves a significant void that will require creative solutions to overcome.
Singapore
They raised eyebrows on the opening day of the 2019 T20 World Cup Qualifier when they ambushed Scotland to win a thriller at the ICC Academy in Dubai by two runs. It's hard to imagine anyone taking them lightly now, even if Tim David is unavailable because of T20 Blast commitments with Lancashire.
Even without him, Singapore still pose a threat. Opener Surendran Chandramohan scored a century in Singapore's final T20I ahead of the qualifier against Papua New Guinea on July 3. Longtime middle-order stalwart Arjun Mutreja has been scoring consistently as well in the lead-up to the first match in Zimbabwe. On the bowling side, captain Amjad Mahboob's array of slower balls and yorkers at the death gave Scotland a headache in Singapore's victory at the previous qualifier and showcased the experience they will be able to draw upon to give USA and Zimbabwe a serious challenge for a semi-final spot.
Jersey
Jersey won three of their six matches in the group stage three years ago at the qualifier, missing out on a playoff berth on net run rate. Those victories included wins over both UAE, who made the playoff stage, and Oman, who went to the T20 World Cup for a second consecutive time. A population of about 100,000 people may lead many people to think the odds are stacked against them in terms of a talent pool to draw upon, but the island has some of the best turf wicket facilities in the Associate world to help neutralise any disparity they face.
Despite losing four straight T20s in the buildup to this event on tour in Namibia to both the hosts and USA, Jersey showed signs that they would be far from pushovers in Zimbabwe. Left-arm spin allrounder Ben Stevens made an unbeaten 98 in the final warm-up against USA on July 3. Though his form has been patchy recently, former Sussex player Jonty Jenner has the sort of dynamic strokeplay capable of being a disruptor. On the bowling side, Jersey do not have anybody express in the pace department and instead will rely on their spinners to tie teams down - led by Elliot Miles, Rhys Palmer and allrounders Harrison Carlyon and Stevens - to give them the best chance of springing a few upsets.

Group B

Netherlands
The reigning tournament champions have gone through a series of shake-ups in the lead-up to the event, most recently with the abrupt retirement of captain Pieter Seelaar because of chronic back issues. After dominating the global qualifier three years ago, the team put in an underwhelming display at the tournament in the UAE last year and will be looking to atone for that display under new captain Scott Edwards.
Though their qualification chances may be dented by the absence of some of their County-contracted players - Colin Ackermann, Timm van der Gugten and Roelof van der Merwe - Netherlands have enviable depth, best showcased by the frontline pace options of Brandon Glover, Fred Klaassen, Paul van Meekeren and Logan van Beek. They have also received a serious boost from the return of Tom Cooper, who ended a six-year hiatus from the side while focusing on Australian domestic cricket and returned for the recent ODI series against England. Along with the experienced hand of Stephan Myburgh at the top of the order, it would take a calamitous display for them not to advance to the semi-finals.
Papua New Guinea
They were red-hot at this event in 2019, but it increasingly has looked like an anomaly sandwiched around some horrendous results across formats over the last several years. Like Netherlands, they went winless at the T20 World Cup in the UAE - including a pair of lopsided results against Oman and Bangladesh - after running rampant through the qualifying field.
PNG have always been one of the elite fielding sites over the years, but their lack of consistency in the batting department has held them back in recent times. That is best showcased by a three-wicket win over Singapore in the build-up to this tournament where Tony Ura scored an unbeaten 93 off 40 balls at No. 5 as part of a 115-run sixth-wicket stand alongside the devastating finisher Norman Vanua's 71 off 37. But the rest of the batting line-up made single digits in that match. PNG will need something far more significant out of captain Assad Vala and vice-captain Charles Amini if they're going to make it back to the knockout stage.
Hong Kong
They nearly made it three trips in a row to the T20 World Cup but fell short in the knockout stage of the qualifier in 2019 after being in the crosshairs of an extraordinary yorker barrage from Oman's Bilal Khan. That they were able to get that close without longtime batting mainstays Babar Hayat and Anshy Rath is even more impressive.
Though Rath continues to try to carve out a professional career in the Indian domestic system, Hayat has returned to the Hong Kong squad for this qualifier. The team's form as a whole has been a reprisal of their best years from 2014 through 2018. They won four of five matches in the recent tour of Uganda for the CWC Challenge League as Hayat and Kinchit Shah produced centuries during the event. If captain Nizakat Khan can turn back the clock as well to the explosive top-order displays of his youth, there's no reason why Hong Kong cannot contend not just for a semi-final berth but take one of the two spots left for the main event.
Uganda
The African regional champions are a side that like Papua New Guinea do not demonstrate consistency from event to event. But beware of catching them on a bad day, especially in spin-friendly conditions. Under the captaincy of Brian Masaba, Uganda also mirror PNG in their athletic and energetic fielding.
There are few weak links in that regard as 41-year-old offspinner Frank Nsubuga took arguably the catch of the tournament at the Challenge League event last month. Henry Ssenyondo gives them a potent left-arm spin option in tandem with Nsubuga. On the batting side, Ronak Patel and Dinesh Nakrani pack a stiff punch in the middle order with the best chances of success depending on their level of run production throughout the tournament.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna