The ICC's World Cricket League, the competition that has provided the framework for international 50-over cricket below full member level for the past decade, has almost run its course. Just two more tournaments remain before the transition to the new CWC League system was announced three weeks ago.
WCL Division 3 Preview: Nothing to lose but plenty to gain
WCL Division 3, which gets underway in Oman tomorrow, and Division 2, scheduled to be held in Namibia early next year, will determine the final standings for the sides currently ranked 5th-14th, and their place in the new order for the coming cycle, which will run until the 2023 World Cup. The lower six of those sides; Oman, Kenya, Singapore, the United States, Uganda and Denmark, gathered in Muscat yesterday and over the coming ten days will compete for the two available slots at the WCL's swansong in Windhoek, and to preserve their hopes of a place in the new CWC League 2 - the new premiere Associate one-day competition.
Compared to the standard template for World Cricket League divisional tournaments, this edition of Division 3 will be played over a slightly extended schedule, taking place over ten days rather than the customary eight, due to the fact that only two suitable grounds are available at Oman's new purpose-built facility at Amerat. For the same reason, the usual final position play-offs and final have also been scrapped, leaving only the simple round-robin stage. Given that (as usual) only two promotion spots are available, however, the play-off stage is no huge loss as it would have been irrelevant in terms of the practical outcome of the tournament.
The upshot is a slightly less punishing schedule than is customary, with sides each playing five matches over ten days. The 11th and 17th are scheduled reserve days, though given the weather outlook for the tournament it would be very surprising if they are needed. Each team will play each of their opponents once, and final standings will be determined first by points and then by net run rate as first tie breaker. The top two teams on the table will win promotion to Division 2, but as this is the final cycle of the WCL there will be no relegation to Division 4 nor will the middle teams remain in Division 3, but rather the bottom four sides will all join Malaysia, Jersey, Vanuatu, Bermuda, Qatar and Italy in the new CWC Challenge League.
What's at Stake
Given the lack of relegation, this Division 3 is rather more all-or-nothing than past editions. While there is effectively nothing to lose for the teams involved, the stakes are arguably even higher than usual. The immediate goal is of course taking one of the top two spots to win promotion to WCL Division 2 where the Division 3 champions and runners-up will meet Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Namibia and Canada. The end goal is to go on to finish in the top four at Windhoek, which guarantees a place in the coming League 2 alongside Scotland, the UAE and Nepal.
The bottom four at this Division 3 and the bottom two at Division 2 will be consigned to the CWC Challenge League, a 12 team tournament split into two groups of six, where they can expect to play 15 List A fixtures over the course of about 27 months, with the winners of each group progressing to a "Challenge Play-off" tournament by which they can win through to the main World Cup Qualifier.
For the top four at Windhoek, a place in League 2 guarantees no less than 36 fixtures over a similar period, with all league matches accorded ODI status. It is not yet clear whether the four promoted teams will be given full national ODI status as teams, but either way they can expect to play more ODIs in the span of 2.5 years than most have played in their history to date. League 2 also provides a more direct route to the World Cup Qualifier, with the top 3 teams progressing directly, whilst the bottom four head to the aforementioned "Challenge Play-off."
In short then, with nothing to lose but plenty to gain, the stakes at this final WCL Division 3 are higher than they've ever been.
Hosts Oman would be firm favourites wherever the tournament was held, and home advantage generally counts for a great deal at divisional WCL tournaments. Anything but a top two finish would be a grave disappointment for Zeeshan Maqsood's side. Relegation from the extraordinary edition of Division 2 back in February interrupted a roll of three straight promotions for the "Red Brigade," and they will be keen to correct that setback in their first ever tournament on home soil.
At the Asia Cup Qualifiers two months ago, Oman's first competitive outing under Maqsood, they registered wins over Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal, eventually finishing joint second in the league stage with eventual winners Hong Kong and missing out on the final only on net run rate.
Built around the trio of slow-bowling genuine allrounders of Maqsood, Aqib Illyas and Khawar Ali, with Bilal Khan and former Pakistan under-19s quick Fayyaz Butt providing an enviable left-right pace pairing, Oman probably boast the strongest attack in the Division. As with a number of sides at the tournament, they have benefited somewhat from the relaxation of the ICC's development criteria for player eligibility which lifted limits on the number of players qualifying by residency and solved some tricky selection conundrums for the Omanis, with former Goa under 19s left-arm spinner Badal Singh the latest beneficiary.
Under normal circumstances, Kenya, likewise relegated from the last Division 2, would be strong favourites to bounce straight back up. Indeed for a side once spoken of as a prospective full member Division 3 is a historic nadir in Kenya's fortunes. Their disastrous Division 2 in February prompted a string of resignations and precipitated a governance crisis which has only worsened in the lead up to this tournament with no clear leadership within the team nor in the office.
With Cricket Kenya's accounts currently inaccessible to any of the squabbling factions purporting to run the game back home, the team might not have made it to Muscat at all but for an 11th hour intervention from Jackie Janmohammad, former Cricket Kenya Chairman. Janmohammad (now chairing the renascent Africa Cricket Council), is understood to have stumped up something in the region of 10,000 USD to forestall a boycott that might have further jeopardised Kenya's precarious position vis-a-vis the ICC.
It appears that politics have prompted some last minute changes to the touring party, with the originally named captain Collins Obuya not making the plane, and his brother David, the secretary of the Cricket Kenya Interim Committee who was down as coach in place of Maurice Odumbe, also absent. Obuya is replaced by erstwhile assistant coach Lameck Odhiambo, whilst it remains unclear whether Shem Ngoche will return as captain or whether deputy Dhiren Gondaria will take the reins.
For all the turmoil at home, however, Kenya remain on paper one of the strongest outfits at the tournament, playing two divisions down from where they probably belong. If they can leave the bickering at the boundary they remain strong candidates for promotion.
Third-seeded Singapore narrowly missed out on promotion at the previous edition of the tournament, once again losing out on net run rate, have been warming up in Doha where they were slated to play a pair of warm-ups against a Qatar XI, though they are apparently keeping the details quiet. Division 3 has thus far proved something of a ceiling to Singapore's progress up the divisions, having plateaued there for the previous two cycles after steady progress from Division 6, which they hosted almost a decade ago.
They remain outsiders to progress ahead of this edition, Chetan Suryawanshi leading much the same side as finished bottom of the pile at the Asia Cup Qualifiers -Singapore's most recent competitive 50-over outing. Nonetheless, after last edition's near miss and with more fancied sides in a degree of turmoil Singapore may sniff a chance to go one better. Much will depend on skipper Suryawanshi and the experienced Anish Paraam who finished top-scorer at the Asia Cup Qualifiers. A top two spot would be something of an upset, but Singapore are more than capable of springing a few surprises.
Though close supervision from the ICC has ensured that the USA have not slid into the same sort as disarray of Kenya, nonetheless Saurabh Netravalkar's side also arrived in Oman under a cloud of controversy, in part due to his own elevation to the captaincy. Former skipper Ibrahim Khaleel was one of a number of players dropped ahead of the tour, with the US seemingly using their participation in the West Indies Super 50 competition as much as a scouting exercise as preparation.
Call-ups for US passport-holders Hayden Walsh and Aaron Jones, both of Barbados, generated something of an outcry from those who felt they had unfairly bypassed the US' selection process, and indeed the United States have taken full advantage of the more liberal eligibility rules introduced last year. The side they take to Oman is packed with players with first class experience abroad, and Netravalkar himself is one of four players in the squad to have represented a full member at under 19 level.
Given the wealth of talent and experience in the side, not least that of star batsman Steven Taylor (one of the few US-born players in the squad) the States ought to be odds-on to finally break through to Division 2 at the 5th attempt, assuming they can put their selection wrangles behind them.
Fellow Division 3 veterans Uganda, who have been at five of the previous six editions, missed out on promotion for the first time in 2017, instead finding themselves relegated to Division 4. Roger Mukasa's side bounced back from that tournament in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, though that was a close run thing.
Uganda's recent slide has been as much a factor of strengthening competition as any real regression in their own side, and the team Mukasa takes to Oman is as strong as any they have put out in recent times. A number of South Asian players who have been plying their trade in Uganda's domestic leagues have now come into the side, such as Aziz Damani CC's former overseas pro Riazat Ali Shah, a right arm quick who represented Islamabad at under 19 level, Dinesh Nakrani - the stand-out performer at the recent Africa B WT20 Sub-Regional Qualifier, and Irfan Afridi - a big hitting, leg-spinning all-rounder in the mould of his famous uncle Shahid.
Skipper Mukasa played down his side's ambitions in the Ugandan press ahead of the tournament, apparently unaware of the recent changes to the competition structure, saying that avoiding relegation was their first priority. Given that relegation is off the table however, one hopes his side may revise their target upwards.
Meanwhile fellow Division 4 graduates Denmark will be targetting their return to Division 2, which has eluded them since the inaugural edition in 2007. The Danes have been on something of a winning streak of late, narrowly winning promotion at Division 4 off the back of wins over Bermuda, Malaysia and Jersey, and completing a perfect run at the European WT20 Qualifiers to top their group in the Netherlands this summer.
Nonetheless, Hamid Shah's side will need to up their game if they are to stand a chance of winning through this tournament, having generally struggled against this level of competition. They sank to two consecutive defeats in the two warm-up matches they played at the ICC Academy last week, albeit against a near full-strength UAE this week.
Shah's own efforts there will give them some hope though, racking up an impressive 90 off 108 balls against an ODI-standard attack. Denmark's own attack also did themselves credit in Dubai, young Jonas Henriksen picking up five Emirati wickets on the tour whilst the spin section generally kept the scoring in check.
Much will depend on Shah himself together with veteran Freddie Klokker as they look to lead a comparatively inexperienced side through the toughest challenge they've faced in some years.
The Oman Cricket Academy, situated about 20km outside of Muscat at Al Amerat, will host the tournament. The purpose-built facility was just inaugurated on Monday by His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Minister of Heritage and Culture, and boasts 15 turf pitches across two grounds, watered by means of a dedicated reverse osmosis plant.
This being the first tournament that the venue (and indeed the country) has hosted, little can be said of conditions with confidence, though grounds in the region tend to be comparatively slow and offer assistance to spin. The forecast for the duration of the tournament is fine, with temperatures climbing toward the high twenties or low thirties Celsius and the chance of clouds, much less rain, remote.
Though the slightly stretched format offers a little more respite than in customary in WCL tournaments, the schedule remains punishing, with most sides playing on consecutive days.
Friday, 9 Nov - Oman v Kenya, OC Turf 1; Uganda v Denmark, OC Turf 2
Saturday, 10 Nov - USA v Uganda, OC Turf 1; Oman v Singapore, OC Turf 2
Monday, 12 Nov - Kenya v USA, OC Turf 1; Denmark v Singapore, OC Turf 2
Tuesday, 13 Nov - Oman v Denmark, OC Turf 1; Uganda v Kenya, OC Turf 2
Thursday, 15 Nov - Singapore v Uganda, OC Turf 1; Denmark v USA, OC Turf 2
Friday, 16 Nov - USA v Oman, OC Turf 1; Kenya v Singapore, OC Turf 2
Sunday, 18 Nov - Kenya v Denmark, OC Turf 1; Oman v Uganda OC Turf 2
Monday, 19 Nov - Singapore v USA, OC Turf 1
DENMARK: Hamid Shah (captain), Jonas Henriksen, Taranjit Singh Bharaj, Saif Ahmad, Anique Uddin, Bashir Shah, Zameer Khan, Nicolaj Damgaard, Anders Bulow, Mads Henriksen, Jino Jojo
KENYA: Shem Ngoche, Dhiren Gondaria, Rakep Patel, Irfan Karim, Alex Obanda, Pushpak Kerai, Nahendra Kalyan, Gurdeep Singh, Emmanuel Bundi, Sachin Bhudia, Nelson Odhiambo, Nehemiah Odhiambo, Lucas Oluoch, Elijah Otieno
OMAN: Zeeshan Maqsood (captain), Jatinder Singh, Aaqib Ilyas Sulehri, Suraj Kumar,Khawar Ali, Muhammad Nadeem, Mehran Khan, Jay Odedra, Bilal Khan, Ahmad Butt, Kaleemullah, Sufyan Mehmood, Baadal Singh, Nestor Dhamba
SINGAPORE: Chetan Suryawanshi (captain), Aahan Gopinath Achar, Rezza Gaznavi, Amjad Mahboob, Anantha Krishna, Anish Edward Paraam, Aritra Dutta, Sidhant, Janak Prakash, Arjun Mutreja, Manpreet Singh, Karthik Subramanian, Rohan Rangarajan, Abhiraj Rajdeep Singh
UGANDA: Brian Masaba (captain), Arnold Otwani, Dinesh Nakrani, Bilal Hassun, Roger Mukasa, Hamu Kayondo, Ronak Patel, Henry Ssenyondo, Frank Nsubuga, Charles Waiswa, Irfan Muhammad, Kenneth Waiswa, Deusdedit Muhumuza. Riazat Ali Shah
USA: Saurabh Netravalkar (captain), Jaskaran Malhotra, Nisarg Patel, Steven Taylor, Alex Amsterdam, Jannisar Khan, Roy Silva, Monank Patel, Timil Patel, Aaron Jones, Hayden Walsh Jr., Elmore Hutchinson, Muhammad Ali Khan, Nosthush Kenjige