Unfortunately, the Associate Nations are not given much of an opportunity by the ICC to play cricket on the world stage. The only time they are pitted against the top teams is during the World Cups, in both T20Is and ODIs. Even then, the ICC are extremely exclusive about who can participate, and the number of Associate Nations is kept to a minimum. The ICC’s latest plans to reduce the number of teams taking part in the 2019 World Cup to ten is simply inexplicable. Yet, when the Associates do participate in these tournaments, they never fail to entertain. There have been several upsets at the hands of these minnows, including Afghanistan beating the West Indies in the 2016 World T20. However, there is not a regular stream of fixtures for each side, meaning that it is hard for the Associate Nations to improve.
That’s where the Emirates Cricket Board decided to intervene. They proposed to hold a tournament, “The Desert T20 Tournament”, which would be purely for the top eight Associate Nations. This tournament kicks off on Saturday, when Hong Kong will come up against Scotland in Abu Dhabi. There are eight nations taking part and they have been split up into two groups. Each side will play three group stage matches, with the top two sides from each group progressing into the semi-finals.
High Standard of Cricket Expected
Seven out of the eight sides taking part featured in the World T20 in the summer of last year. Namibia is the only side not to have taken part, but they were actually only chosen for this tournament once Papua New Guinea decline to participate, so they go into the Desert T20 Tournament as the underdogs. All of the other sides are extremely close in terms of strength and there is not one clear favourite to win the tournament. Ireland and Afghanistan are the two most experienced sides taking part, with both nations having featured in over four World T20s since the inaugural event in 2007. The standard of cricket should be exceptionally high, as all of the sides have picked full-strength squads. More importantly, each of the sides will be desperate to win the trophy and to increase their reputation on the global stage.
Pool A consists of Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Ireland and Namibia. Out of those sides, the favourites to progress are Afghanistan and Ireland. Those two sides played a five match ODI series last year, and it was an extremely close affair. The series was drawn 2-2, with one match being abandoned due to rain. This shows just how similar these two sides are and it is impossible to guess who will come out on top when the two sides meet again on Saturday.
In preparation for the tournament, Ireland played two ODI matches, one against Australia and one against South Africa. As expected, they lost both matches by a large margin. However, the cricket they played was promising, with lots of batsmen able to make starts. Ireland’s recent T20 form is worrying though. They haven’t actually won a T20 match since March 2016, where they beat Hong Kong in a World T20 warm-up match. Their last T20 series was against Hong Kong, but they lost the two match series 1-0 as they suffered a crushing defeat after the first match was rained off. They will be desperate to regain some T20 form, and the Desert T20 Tournament is the perfect opportunity for them.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, enter the tournament off the back of a dominating T20 series win against the United Arab Emirates. They played the series in the UAE, which gave the Afghan players a chance to adjust to the foreign conditions. This will be a huge advantage for them, as it is an extremely tough task to quickly adapt to overseas pitches. Mohammad Shahzad was the leading run scorer for Afghanistan in that series as he continued his magnificent run of T20 form. Shahzad was the fourth highest run scorer in the T20 World Cup, which was a truly magnificent feat for him. He is definitely one of the players to watch in the upcoming tournament.
The other group contains the remaining teams of Hong Kong, Scotland, Oman and the Netherlands. Scotland are expected to qualify out of this group without too much difficulty, with either Hong Kong or the Netherlands likely to join them in the semi-finals. However, having said that, Oman have proven themselves to be capable of causing upsets. They made history in the World T20 when they beat Ireland in a thrilling encounter. While they are unlikely to be able to replicate such a feat, the sides in Pool B will have to be weary of them.
Scotland are currently enjoying a great run of form, being unbeaten since July last year. They easily overcame the United Arab Emirates in the two-match ODI series they played, and followed it up with another series win over Hong Kong. However, it must be noted that Scotland will have a new captain for the Desert T20 Tournament, following the retirement of previous skipper Preston Mommsen. To replace him, Scotland chose talented top order batsman Kyle Coetzer to be the new captain, and appointed Con De Lange as their new vice-captain. It’ll be interesting to see how their new captain alters their style of play and whether or not it will unsettle their side.
Both Hong Kong and the Netherlands head into the tournament with a mixed run of form. Hong Kong struggled against Ireland when they played each other, but found better form against Kenya and Papua New Guinea in November. However, they will be greatly relieved to see their captain Babar Hayat finding some phenomenal form. He has managed two hundreds in the last two domestic matches he has played in the Hong Kong Premier League One-Day Tournament. In the last international match he played, Hayat blasted a magnificent 78 to set up a large win over Kenya. The Hong Kong fans will be desperately hoping that Hayat can maintain his purple patch and carry the team into the semi-finals. The Netherlands are their major obstacle though. Interestingly, the Netherlands have only played three competitive matches since the T20 World Cup and have only managed to win one of them. Most recently, they suffered a shock defeat at the hands of a spirited Nepal. It is by no means clear which of these two sides will qualify for the semi-finals, but when they clash on the 18th January, it should be a thrilling affair.