The countdown to 2009 ICC Women's World Cup begins next month when four African countries assemble in Kenya for the Women's World Cup Regional Qualifying Cricket Tournament between 8 and 11 December.

Besides the host nation, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Uganda will contest the one-day competition which will be played in a simple round-robin format. It will be a special and historic time for the Zimbabwe team as it makes its international debut.

The winner of this African regional competition will progress through to the ICC Women's World Cup Cricket Qualifying Tournament (WWCQT) to be staged in Pakistan late next year where eight qualifiers will vie for two available slots in the 2009 World Cup line-up.

Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Bermuda, Ireland and South Africa are already through to that penultimate stage. Apart from the African qualifier, these teams will be joined by two more from the European regional tournament to be played in the Netherlands next summer.

For the 2009 ICC Women's World Cup, defending champions Australia, India, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and West Indies have earned automatic qualification following their top-six finish in the 2005 Women's World Cup in Pretoria.

The 2009 ICC Women's World Cup will be the first to be played under the auspices of the ICC since its merger with the International Women's Cricket Council last year. The IWCC had 15 members and since integration with the ICC the women's game has been growing fast.

There are now 42 countries with formal girls and/or women's teams playing in structured cricket competitions. A further 23 do not have competition teams yet but do have both girls and boys in junior development initiatives. That makes 65 of ICC's 97 members with some women's cricket and it is growing all the time.

Chairwoman of ICC Women's Committee Betty Timmer says she is delighted with the progress made so far.

'We have achieved a lot since the integration of women's cricket within the ICC in April 2005. We still have a long way to go but it's evident that joining the ICC was a big step for the development of women's cricket. Female participation will continue to grow in the years to come,' she said.

'Looking forward, we want to produce the best ever Women's World Cup, create more publicity and hopefully the teams will be in top shape. We will do everything possible to create the right environment for teams to perform at their best,' she said.

Ms Timmer added that the qualifying structure had been designed in order to give every country more international experience.

'This whole set-up gives countries more international cricket experience and the participating countries will benefit from this competition. It's great for the development of women's cricket throughout the various regions,' she said.

'For the participating players in Africa, next month's qualifier will be an exciting tournament because the winner will go to the Women's World Cup Qualifying Tournament and so they will be able to gauge where they stand on the international stage.'

Having been first held in 1973, the Women's World Cup has been running for two years longer than the men's version. That year, hosts England beat Australia by 118 runs in the final at Edgbaston.

Since then there have been a further seven tournaments with Australia winning five of them (1978, 1982, 1988, 1997 and 2005), England winning once more (in 1993) and New Zealand triumphing in 2000.

The tournament has been staged twice each in England (1973 and 1993), India (1978 and 1997) and New Zealand (1982 and 2000) as well as Australia (1988) and South Africa (2005).