The top six Associate teams are gearing up to go head to head in the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier to be staged in Belfast, Ireland from 2 to 5 August.

And the venue for this mouth-watering contest that begins on Saturday is Stormont, which will host all of the tournament's 11 matches.

Hosts and top seeds Ireland will face up to Scotland and Bermuda in Group A, while second seed Kenya is joined by the Netherlands and Canada in Group B. At stake are two or possibly three places in the ICC World Twenty20 2009 being staged in England.

Both finalists will qualify for the tournament which will take place at Lord's, The Oval and Trent Bridge next June.

The third place, to be decided by a third and fourth-place play-off, is dependent on Zimbabwe Cricket's Board ratifying a decision taken by its officials during ICC Annual Conference week, to step back from the tournament.

With the concept of T20I relatively new to the Associate teams, all the six sides will start on a similar footing although Ireland will feel it has its nose ahead for three simple reasons: it is playing at home, is at full strength and has shown excellent form of late in the ICC Intercontinental Cup and the European Championships.

'We'd always back ourselves, but we know it's going to be difficult,' said Ireland captain William Porterfield, the 23-year-old left-handed batsman who plays for Gloucestershire in the county championship in the UK.

'There's so much at stake, not just in financial terms, but in terms of prestige. The competition in England is going to be an incredible experience, and we'd like to be there,' he said.

Porterfield said his team's chances for next year's event would not end even if it failed to qualify for the final. 'The fact that it looks like there is going to be a third place with the likelihood of Zimbabwe withdrawing, then it takes a wee bit of the pressure off.

'It means if we lose in the semi-final, then we're going to have a second chance to qualify. That third and fourth-place place-off game will probably be the most tensed match of the entire competition,' he said.

These six teams last got together in a qualifying tournament in Nairobi in January-February 2007, in the ICC World Cricket League Division 1. Ireland finished fifth then, while Kenya defeated Scotland by eight wickets in the final. Both finalists qualified for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa.

But, despite that pedigree, Kenya captain Steve Tikolo says his team is behind Ireland and Scotland in the pecking order. 'In the Twenty20 format anything can happen but I think Ireland and Scotland are the two favourite sides because they are playing in familiar conditions while we are coming from hot conditions.

'We have worked extremely hard in England on a pre-event tour and have made sure we have all the resources and have all bases covered,' said Tikolo.

Tikolo, who has played all Kenya's 23 matches in ICC Cricket World Cups, stressed the importance of this tournament for Kenya cricket. 'We have to qualify for next year's event because it's extremely vital to the development of the game in Kenya. There is no point in having a good team that cannot perform.'

Third seeded Scotland defeated Ireland in the ICC World Cup Qualifier 2005 (formerly the ICC Trophy) and captain Ryan Watson said despite injuries his team had the ammunition to fire in the tournament. 'We have a strong squad, with players who are ideally suited to this form of the game,' he said.

'In John Blain and Dewald Nel, I feel we've got the best new ball attack among the Associate teams. It's such a bonus to have guys who take wickets up front, and they do it consistently to peg back the opposition.

'I open the batting in the one-day format, and I see no reason to change that. Gavin Hamilton has started to open and has done quite well. We'll also have Navdeep Poonia and Kyle Coetzer available from the counties so we have options.

'Unfortunately we've been hit with a few injuries. Our former captain Craig Wright misses out as he has a back injury. That combined with the loss of Gordon Goudie means that there is an opportunity for the others to step up,' said Watson, who captained Scotland in the ICC World Twenty 2007.

Looking ahead at the mouthwatering Scotland versus Ireland match on the opening day, Watson said: 'An opening fixture with Ireland in Ireland is about as tough as it gets. As a tournament opener this should be a great one for fans of both countries.'

The Netherlands' preparation for the Belfast tournament has been up and down. The Dutch failed to qualify for the final of the ICC European Championships in Dublin and installed Jeroen Smits as captain in place of Peter Borren just this week.

Smits, the 36-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, was not included in the original side and comes in place of 31-year-old batsman Bas Zuiderent. 'I wasn't originally supposed to be in the squad, but we've had a few injuries, and I've been asked to come back in and help out,' he said.

Smits said his team will target third place in the tournament. 'We're in a tough group, but then there are no easy fixtures when you are at this level.

'Canada and Kenya are strong teams, but you have to look at yourself and your own strengths. If we play to our potential, then we will be hopeful of making it.

'Our focus is, of course, to finish in the top three.'

Canada and Bermuda are the dark horses of the tournament. Both have struggled In the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for the leading Associates, but this is T20I cricket, a whole new ball game.

Bermuda, coached by former West Indies star Gus Logie, said his team needed to stay focused throughout the tournament and show consistency. 'Since this is a new concept, players aren't experienced enough which gives us a good chance to produce good results.

'It is a fast paced format and you have to match that pace and the 11 players need to fire to get the desired results.'


BERMUDA - Irving Romaine (captain), David Hemp, Rodney Trott, Oliver Pitcher Jr, Christopher Foggo, James Celestine, Oronde Bascome, Tamauri Tucker, Stefan Kelly, George O'Brien, Jekon Edness, Stephen Outerbridge, Dwayne Leverock, Kyle Hodsoll; Lionel Thomas (manager), Augustine Logie (coach), Herbert Bascome (assistant coach).

CANADA - Sanjay Thuraisingam (captain), Ashish Bagai, Abdool Samad, Abdul Jabbar Chaudrey, Geoffrey Barnett, Henry Osinde, Harvir Baidwan, Eion Katchay, Sunil Dhaniram, John Davison, Muhammad Qazi, Zubin Surkari, Karun Jethi, Steven Welsh; Miokje Henry (manager), Pubudu Dassanayake (coach), Dan Kiesel (physiotherapist)

IRELAND - Wiliiam Porterfield (captain), Niall O'Brien, Eoin Morgan, Kevin O'Brien, Andre Botha, Andrew White, Alex Cusack, Gary Wilson, Trent Johnston, Kyle McCallan, Thinus Fourie, Peter Connell, Reinhardt Strydom, Gary Kidd; Roy Torrens (manager), Phil Simmons (coach), Peter Johnston (assistant coach), Kieran O'Reilly (physiotherapist)

KENYA - Steve Tikolo (captain), Thomas Odoyo, Kennedy Otieno, Collins Obuya, Peter Ongondo, Ondik Suji, Hiren Varaiya, Rakep Patel, Morris Ouma, James Kamande, Nehemiah Odhiambo, Elijah Otieno, Alex Obanda, Ragheb Aga.

NETHERLANDS - Jeroen Smits (captain), Peter Borren, Mudassar Bukhari, Daan Van Bunge, Tom De Grooth, Maurits Jonkman, Alexei Kervezee, Geert M. Mol, Pieter Seelaar, Darron Reekers, Edgar Schiferli, Jelte Schoonheim, Eric Szwarzcyniski, Ryan Ten Doeschate, Jeroen Smits.

SCOTLAND - Ryan Watson (captain), Gregor Maiden, Navdeep Poonia, Colin Smith, Gavin Hamilton, Fraser Watts, Richard Berrington, Majid Haq, John Blain, Kyle Coetzer, Glenn Rogers, Dewald Nel, Neil McCallum, Gordon Drummond.