Ten teams are in Zimbabwe this month to contest a qualifying tournament for the 2019 World Cup. Some are delighted to be there, others less so. For some, such as Nepal, participating in the tournament is in itself an achievement to be celebrated. For others, notably the West Indies, it’s something of an embarrassment. The 10 teams will be playing against each other, ranked on the same points tables, and aiming to reach the same final, but in many ways they’ll be playing entirely different tournaments.
For the Windies and Zimbabwe, the tournament is a last chance to make good the dismal run of 50-over results that has seen them miss out of automatic qualification for the cricket world’s premiere event, but for fellow Full <embers Afghanistan and Ireland qualification is familiar territory, albeit something they might have preferred to leave behind with their Associate status.
For the Netherlands, unusually, the tournament is more do or don’t rather than do or die, insulated as they are from the risk of a repeat of the disastrous 2014 edition by their victory in the World Cricket League Championship and guaranteed return to the top flight. For the rest of the Associates, the tournament is not just a final, nigh-insuperable obstacle to a place at the World Cup, but also the sole determinant of their place in the pecking-order for the next four years.
What’s at stake
As the name implies, qualification for the World Cup is the principal prize on offer in Zimbabwe this month. Given the lamentable decision to restrict access to the 2019 edition to just 10 teams, however, only the two finalists in Zimbabwe will walk away with the tickets to England.
The down-sizing of the World Cup also means that for the first time four Full Members will be forced to go through qualifying (though Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all featured in the tournament during their Associate days, when the competition was known as the ICC Trophy) and at least two of the West Indies, Zimbabwe and newcomers Afghanistan and Ireland will inevitably miss out this time round.
For the Associates, however, the tournament isn’t just about a shot at a spot at the World Cup. As the culmination of the most recent edition of the World Cricket League, the ICC’s multi-division qualification ladder that provides Associates with most of their cricket, the final standings at this tournament will also determine which teams are awarded ODI status for the coming four years.
Whilst the Netherlands, by winning the World Cricket League Championship, have already earned back the ODI status that they lost at the previous qualifier (though for some inscrutable reason they will have to wait till after this tournament to reclaim it), the remaining five Associates; Scotland, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, the UAE and Nepal will be chasing the remaining three slots.
Though everyone’s sights will be set on a place at the final and a ticket to England 2019, for these five countries finishing ahead of their rivals is arguably more important, and will certainly have more lasting ramifications.
The teams are split into two groups of five. Group A, consisting of the West Indies, Ireland, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea and the United Arab Emirates, will be based in Harare. Meanwhile in Bulawayo, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Scotland, Hong Kong and Nepal will contest Group B.
The top three teams from each group then progress to the Super Sixes, where they play three further matches against the promoted teams from the opposite group. Points from the Group Stage will be carried forward to the Super Sixes, except for points gained in matches against teams that fail to progress.
At the end of the Super Sixes, the top two teams on points (with most total wins as first tie-breaker, followed by net run rate) will contest the final, which will arguably be something of an anti-climax as both finalist will qualify for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, the four teams that miss out on the Super Sixes will play off against one another, first in cross-over play-offs where the fourth-placed team from each group plays the fifth-placed from the other, before the winners contest the seventh place play-off and the losers face off for the wooden spoon. Barring serious upsets, these “losers play-offs” will likely be where ODI status is decided.
The schedule is demanding, with 34 games crammed into just three weeks, though more time has been allocated for the tournament than in the past meaning Full Members won’t face the unfamiliar ordeal of playing 50-over games on consecutive days.
Though the round-robin format allows (with a little luck) some scope for recovery from a poor start, there remains very little room for error for prospective finalists. Just two losses, or even a loss and a no result, could easily be enough to send a team crashing out. The cut-throat nature of the format can be seen reflected in past results, where the pre-tournament favourites only occasionally win, and have been known to miss out on the final altogether.
Compounding that uncertainty is the current weather situation, whilst February is not traditionally the wettest month in Zimbabwe it’s hardly the driest either, as the past two weeks have shown. The warm-up matches ahead of the tournament have been heavily affected by rain, with three washed out entirely and most of the rest suffering interruptions.
The inclement weather will inevitably have some effect on the state of the surfaces for the tournament proper, which despite the considerable work that has been put into them over recent months by Zimbabwe Cricket and the ICC, are likely to be rather less batting-friendly than one might expect from Southern Africa.
Of the venues Harare Sports Club will likely remain the most favourable to batsmen, though some help can be expected for pace bowlers too. Old Hararians is traditionally a trickier batting track, whilst the grounds at Bulawayo have in the past been considerably more conducive to spin.
The top-ranked team in the tournament, and two-time World Champions, the West Indies, were quite open about the fact that they weren’t best pleased to even be at the qualifier, and now that they are here, they don’t seem to be enjoying it that much. They came to Zimbabwe off the back of consecutive whitewash series defeats to England and New Zealand, and were duly bowled out for 110 and then 115 in their warm-up matches against Afghanistan and the UAE.
Though they came back to win against the Emirates, the display suggests the Windies batsmen are not taking to the conditions with any relish. Under-strength and on unfamiliar territory – the Windies are the only team in Zimbabwe never to have taken part in such a qualifying event before – they are without question carry more weight of expectation than any other team at the tournament. Whilst some of the lower-ranked sides may realise they are unlikely to leave Zimbabwe with a berth at the World Cup, every side at the tournament would like to go home with a win over the West Indies to boast about.
For all these disadvantages, however, the Windies do have one rather compelling advantage over the rest of the field – they are better at cricket. Though not at full strength, having failed to convince players such as Sunil Narine, Darren Bravo or Andre Russel to make themselves available, the West Indies were on paper the strongest side at the tournament even before the news of Chis Gayle and Marlon Samuels’ return.
Conversely Ireland have generally been seen as a declining force in limited-overs cricket for the last few years, yet recent form suggests there may be life in the old dogs yet. Though the 2019 World Cup looks like a potential swansong on the world stage for veterans like Ed Joyce, Will Porterfield and Niall and Kevin O’Brien, the team as a whole has shown little sign of age in the run-up to the tournament. With an away series win over Afghanistan under their belts and solid performances in the warm-ups both in Pretoria and in Zimbabwe, the Irish head into the qualifier with much of their old swagger, not to mention a batsman in sublime form in Paul Stirling.
Their old rivals the Netherlands, who the Irish will meet in their opener tomorrow, are potential wildcards in the group. Bolstered by the return of Associate great Ryan ten Doeschate, the Dutch have the capability of beating any team at the tournament. Having already secured their ODI status, Peter Borren’s side have a rare freedom to play uninhibited consequence-free cricket usually afforded only to Full Members. Despite Ten Doeschate’s return, however, the Dutch are also below full strength in Zimbabwe, with Tom Cooper, Logan van Beek and Michael Rippon – the latter their lead wicket taker in the WCLC – all unavailable due to domestic commitments. The result is a somewhat unsettled side that looks a little light on spin, something that may prove telling as the tournament wears on.
Joining them in Group A by virtue of a fourth-place finish in the WCLC are Papua New Guinea. The sole East Asia Pacific representatives at the tournament remain a dangerous outfit despite a poor run of form ahead of the competition, losing both there final WCLC matches to Hong Kong and going down to defeats against Zimbabwe and Scotland in the warm-ups. Sharp in the field and with a disciplined bowling attack, the Papuans also boast, in the likes of Asad Vala and Lega Siaka, batsmen capable of scoring big and fast. Nonetheless they remain outsiders to reach the Super Sixes, much less the final, and retaining their ODI status will likely be their first priority.
Likewise their first opponents the United Arab Emirates, who scraped into the competition through the closely-fought World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia last month, will be as keenly aware of the risk of losing the status that more-or-less guarantees their livelihoods as of the chance at booking a turn on the global stage. The UAE, nonetheless, are at least as strong an outfit as that which reached the final at the last edition of the tournament ahead of more fancied teams such as the Netherlands. With the stalwart Shaiman Anwar returning to form, and with revised eligibility criteria affording debuts to a number of players with First-Class experience outside the Emirates, the UAE are a risky side to write-off.
If the Windies remain the strongest side at the tournament on paper, Afghanistan nonetheless remain the favourites. Despite their newly-won Full Membership, the Afghans are old hands at these tournaments. With young leg-spinning skipper Rashid Khan now officially recognised as the best limited-overs bowler in the world, and the still younger Mujeeb Zadran following in his footsteps, Afghanistan exiting short of the final would be a genuine upset.
They are far from invincible, however, and question marks over their batting remain – highlighted again by consecutive top-order collapses in their warm-ups against the West Indies and the Netherlands. The lower order dug them out of a hole against the Windies, and Rashid and the rain just about saved them from defeat to the Dutch, but a degree of vulnerability was nonetheless in evidence.
That will give some comfort to hosts Zimbabwe, who despite their status as a well-established Full Member and the advantage of home conditions, have good reason to worry about the prospect of missing their first World Cup. Though with the return of Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis this Zimbabwe squad looks stronger than it has in some years, they have been done no favours by the draw. They play at spin-friendly Bulawayo in a group with three Asian sides, which boast strong slow-bowling attacks – historically something of a weakness for this Zimbabwe side.
Nonetheless, home advantage has historically counted for a fair bit in such tournaments, and despite the renewed distraction of financial turmoil at ZC and a dubious run of results ahead of the tournament, one suspects the hosts will be first in line to take advantage should the favourites falter.
Current title-holders Scotland face a rather tougher field this time round, but Kyle Coetzer’s side are an attractive long-shot punt for a top spot, not least due to the Scotland skipper’s own form with the bat. After a second place finish in the WCLC, with an improbable habit of taking the rain around with them arguably the biggest factor in denying them the top spot, the Scots could be forgiven for feeling themselves a bit unlucky not to be in the Netherlands’ position. As it is they will be scrapping to hold onto their ODI status along with the rest, and a berth in the Super Sixes will be a minimum target.
Another team with their proverbial neck on the block are Hong Kong, who likewise weren’t far off pipping the Dutch to the WCLC title. Despite the absence of their prodigal prodigy Mark Chapman, whose recent New Zealand debut sees him lost to Hong Kong for the foreseeable future, skipper Babar Hayat and young deputy Ashuman Rath have been two of the most consistent batsmen in Associates cricket in recent years. And with a solid slow-bowling unit built around Nadeem Ahmed and Ehsan Khan, they will in all probability find the conditions in Bulawayo to their liking.
Looking to displace them on the ODI roster are underdogs Nepal, whose qualification via WCL Division 2 is surely one of the more remarkable stories in the competitions history. Having won through one of the most high-pressure, nerve-shredding, and downright extraordinary tournaments in recent memory, Nepal now find themselves, like the Dutch, with nothing to lose and plenty to gain. Though their batting is likely still too weak to maintain a credible challenge for a finals spot, Paras Khadka’s side have shown themselves capable of overcoming quite absurd odds just to get here.