2014 World Twenty20 Qualifiers preview
Are Ireland the biggest of the small fries? Can Scotland return to the top of the table? Do the Dutch have the ability to go all the way? Ryan Bailey's preview has the answers.
Cricket has experienced astronomical wide-reaching global growth and expansion in recent years and the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifying tournament, which starts on Friday, will only further underline the sport's development and increased popularity.
The three-week tournament will see sixteen Associate and Affiliate nations battle it out for the six available places in the tournament proper, which will be staged in Bangladesh next year. The big-hitting extravaganza will be the biggest event in the non-Test playing calendar, with a total of 72 games to be played across six venues in the United Arab Emirates.
The gap between the elite of the cricketing world and the so-called 'minnows' is continually diminishing with the ICC deciding that the fifth edition of the Twenty20 World Cup will be expanded to a sixteen-team event, rather than the ten nation tournament which has gone before.
Therefore, the qualification process has been made a lot more straightforward and unequivocal for defending champions Ireland as well as high-flying Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it's a generous opportunity for the likes of Scotland and Netherlands to return to the big stage while the emerging nations will have their eye on a potentially defining berth in Bangladesh.
Both Ireland and Afghanistan, who featured at last year's event, earned direct qualification into the 2013 qualifying tournament along with Canada, Holland, Namibia and the Scots by virtue of finishing in the top six of the process twelve months ago.
Joining those six sides this time around are the remaining nine nations who progressed through eleven regional tournaments, featuring no fewer than seventy-two countries.
The tournament will see the sixteen nations split into two groups of eight with the sides that top the pools at the conclusion of the group stages, automatically securing qualification. Previously, that would be the culmination of the dream for the remaining sides but this year sees those that finish second and third in each group given another chance to qualify.
The sides that finish second and third in each of the two groups will play cross-over matches, with the two winners also progressing to Bangladesh. However, it doesn't end there.
The sides that finish fourth and fifth in each of the two groups will also play cross-over matches, with the winners of these two matches then playing the losers of the second v third cross-over fixtures; the victors of these matches will then also progress into the ICC World Twenty20 Bangladesh 2014.
Once the six qualifying teams have been identified, the event will see a semi-final double-header taking place in Abu Dhabi. The victors of these two games will then progress to the final of the tournament. These stages may seem needless and long-winded but the final finishing positions of the teams will determine which group each team will go into for the first round of expanded Twenty20 World Cup, alongside Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
In truth, there is little to worry about for Ireland in Group A, which is arguably the easier of the two. Phil Simmons' side have dominated the Associate nation circuit in recent years and should have little problem in securing a place at their fourth Twenty20 World Cup. Having said that, they did suffer a shock defeat to Namibia twelve months ago, the same opposition that they open their campaign against on Friday.
Simmons has a formidable squad at his disposable with plenty of experience and quality in equal measure. Paul Stirling and Kevin O'Brien are two of the most destructive batsmen in the world and their swashbuckling style is complemented by William Porterfield, Ed Joyce and Niall O'Brien's ability to accumulate and occupy the crease.
The return of all-rounder Alex Cusack gives their squad a more balanced look with veteran Trent Johnston, who retires in December, spearheading the attack along with Middlesex's Tim Murtagh.
Ireland's nearest rivals for the top spot in Group A are likely to Namibia or Canada, but neither have the prowess to derail Ireland's quest. The African side enjoyed an outstanding campaign in 2012 and narrowly missed out on qualification. However, the fall-out between the board and Gerrie Snyman has led to the experienced all-rounder's omission and a row which has largely overshadowed the team's on-field performances. Craig Williams is as good as anyone involved while Ray van Schoor, Louis van der Westhuizen and teenager JJ Smit are all talented cricketers with the ability to take the game away from the opposition.
Canada are on outside bet for qualification and could ruffle a few feathers over the next fifteen days. Having qualified for four World Cups, their track record when it comes to qualification events is impressive but their reliance on veterans Henry Osinde and Rizwan Cheema could prove to be their downfall.
Hosts United Arab Emirates will be quietly confident on home soil but that didn't work to their advantage last year. However, the progress made in the past two years is extremely encouraging and they've a couple of classy players in their ranks. Batsman Shaiman Anwar is in fine form after scoring 86 against Pakistan in a recent tour match and could be set for a fruitful tournament.
Uganda, United States and Hong Kong are all youthful, exuberant sides but have little chance of producing the consistent performances required to be successful in this tournament. However, the potential dark horses of Group A are an emerging Italian side who have Middlesex all-rounder Gareth Berg in their ranks. Their cricketing stock is rising and don't be surprised if they pull off a shock or two.
If the draw has granted Ireland a relatively straightforward passage to Bangladesh, than Group B is a completely different affair with six of the eight sides in with a realistic chance of qualification. Widely regarded as the 'Group of Death', one slip-up from those with high hopes of progression will ultimately prove costly such is the competitiveness of this pool.
Afghanistan's rapid rise is somewhat of a fairy tale and with a place in the 2015 World Cup already assured, they will be confident of competing in their third successive Twenty20 version. Conditions will inevitably suit Kabir Khan's side and their proximity to Pakistan means their subcontinent style is very different to the other affiliates.
Left-armer Shapoor Zadran possesses raw pace and has been central to their success in recent years while wicket-keeper Mohammad Shahzad is an attacking batsman who mirrors his game on Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Netherlands have been one of the leading lights of the Associate game for a while now but their hopes of qualifying for a first Twenty20 World Cup in four years have been severely dented by the departure of long-term coach Peter Drinnen, who paid for a period of inconsistent performances. However, the absence of Tom Cooper,
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