Teams from all over the world have touched down in Zimbabwe for the month-long ICC World Cup qualifiers.
You can imagine the only concern in ICC headquarters for the next month is the very real possibility the rebranded Windies will fail to make it to the champions trophy.. I mean World Cup, in England 2019.
They’re in group A alongside Ireland, The Netherlands, Papa New Guinea and the UAE. Group B contains the favourites Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Scotland, Nepal and Hong Kong.
To add insult to a competition not deemed important enough until the Super Six stage to be televised, (except The Windies v Ireland and The Windies v The Netherlands) some of the games won’t even have one day international status.
In their wisdom the ICC have decided the Netherlands (World Cricket League champions) and three highest finishing associate nations will achieve ODI status until 2022 – after the event.
Nepal are the other side who’s games will not be recognised as full internationals.
The cricket mad country, qualified earlier this month thanks to a 50 run 10th wicket partnership against Canada, a stand 17-year-old IPL recruit Sandeep Lamichhane contributed to.
Even more impressive is the fact captain Paras Khadka essentially runs Nepalese cricket by himself, due to a board suspension imposed by the ICC.
Afghanistan have the undisputed star of the tournament in Rashid Khan, the legspinner is currently the top ranked bowler in both t20’s and ODI’s.
Most recently he has proved almost unplayable in the Big Bash and constantly bamboozled the Zimbabwean in their series in the UAE, which Afghanistan won 4-1.
Zimbabwe themselves look stronger than they have in a while despite that heavy defeat. Batsman Brendan Taylor is back after temporary hiatus playing for Nottinghamshire, and seam bowler Kyle Jarvis returns after a longer period away with Lancashire.
A January win against Sri Lanka in Bangladesh will give them an extra confidence boost.
The Windies are missing the usual T20 globetrotters in Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, Kieron Pollard and Darren Bravo, but do have Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels to shore up the batting ranks.
It is certainly not a foregone conclusion they will be one of the two to qualify for England, and the format of the tournament means their group game against Ireland in particular will be crucial.
Ireland who have famously upset big teams at the last three world cups, probably face their toughest task to date with an ageing squad.
New coach Graham Ford seems to have re-invigorated the squad after a couple of especially poor years under kiwi John Bracewell. A series victory against Afghanistan pre-Christmas and an unbeaten start to 2018, makes qualification a much more realistic prospect than this time last year.
It is a massive year for a country that hosts there first test match in May and a couple of fixtures against India in the summer. World Cup qualification would be the perfect springboard in their first year as a full member.
Outside of the full members they will all be confident of winning games, though unlikely any of them have enough to reach the top 2.
The biggest mystery and likely deciding factor will be the weather and the pitches. The Ireland women played very little cricket on a recent tour to Zimbabwe due to heavy rain.
The ICC have sent experts out to help prepare the pitches and they have even suspended their first-class competition to get the grounds in Bulawayo and Harare ready for the tournament.
If it is slow and low I don’t think any of the sides will get remotely close to Afghanistan, Ireland would love some swing and seam and The Windies would appreciate some 300 + pitches to play on.
Either way this global competition will be the hardest fought, competitive cricket of the year. Where teams will be giving everything for the opportunity to compete against the elite.
An opportunity they would not need to fight so hard for if cricket administrators weren’t so mind numbingly regressive.
Featured Image @ Wikimedia