The countdown to ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup 2008 in Kuala Lumpur begins on Saturday in the Pacific island of Vanuatu as the first of five regional qualifying tournaments gets underway.

One team from each of the five ICC regions will qualify to compete at next year's 16-team event that already includes the 10 Full Members plus hosts Malaysia.

In the February tournament, Pakistan will be aiming to complete a hat-trick of titles. It won the 2004 event in Bangladesh by defeating the West Indies by 25 runs and then successfully defended the title two years later in Sri Lanka by beating traditional rivals India in the final by 38 runs.

The 2006 event in Sri Lanka saw the 10 ICC Full Members qualify automatically alongside six Associate Members that qualified from the regional tournaments - Uganda, USA, Namibia,Scotland, Nepal and Ireland.

With the next four ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup lined up in Associate Member countries, the ICC has made sure that more Affiliates than ever before are included in the qualifying tournaments.

A total of six Affiliates (Vanuatu, Qatar, Afghanistan, Oman, the Bahamas and Ghana) will field teams in the tournaments and ICC Global Development Manager Matthew Kennedy believes these events are an important showcase for the ICC Development Program.

'In many ways, the national under-19 sides of our Associate and Affiliate members are the culmination and measuring stick of their overall junior development programs over the years since the ICC Development Program began in 1997,' said Mr Kennedy.

'These qualifiers provide something for all young cricketers in these countries to aim for. In the past, such opportunities were only afforded to our Associate members but, as the Program has grown, now Affiliate members in every one of our five regions also have the opportunity to win their way through to the ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup.

'Importantly, these under-19 squads are the future of the senior national teams and their exposure and experience in playing international cricket against their peers - and possibly against the world's leading cricket nations - will be invaluable to their career development.'

The East Asia-Pacific Region is where it all begins as its qualifying tournament takes place in Port Vila, Vanuatu from 18-22 July. Besides the host country, Japan, Papua New Guinea (PNG) andFiji will take part in the tournament with the winner earning a ticket to Malaysia.

The action will then shift to Belfast, Ireland where the European qualifying tournament will take place from 23 to 26 July. Scotland, the Netherlands, Denmark and the host team will take part in the event, which will be held on round-robin league basis.

In America, Canada will be aiming to return to the main event after missing out in 2006. The city of Toronto will host the Americas regional qualifier between 13 and 18 August. Besides Canada,Bermuda, Argentina, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas will compete on the single league basis with the team finishing on top of the table securing a berth for the Malaysian tournament.

Asia will field the highest number of teams (nine) when that region's qualifier is played in Malaysiafrom 20 to 29 August. The participating teams include two Affiliates - Qatar and Afghanistan - while the other seven are Nepal, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Hong Kong, Singaporeand Thailand, as well as the host team.

If Malaysia wins the tournament, the losing finalist will qualify for the ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup as Malaysia is already guaranteed a place in the main event.

The Africa regional qualifier will be held in Benoni, South Africa from 25 to 30 August and will have eight teams competing - Ghana, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria and Bostwana.

The ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup is a vital part of the ICC Development Program and provides a vehicle for the best young cricketers in the world to parade their skills.

Many of the future stars of the game experience their first true international exposure at this tournament and players such as Brian Lara, Mike Atherton, Yuvraj Singh, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Chris Cairns, Michael Clarke, Graeme Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya have used the event as a stepping stone to full international honours.

First staged in Australia in 1988, the tournament was initially organised on an occasional basis, but since the commencement of the ICC Development Program in 1997 it has become a biennial fixture.

The 2010 ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup will be held in Kenya while the 2012 tournament will be staged in Canada and UAE will host the 2014 edition.