Once again bowlers call the WCL shots
Sometimes cricket can be the cruellest sport in the world.
Spare a thought, for example, for the team from the Cayman Islands, who came within 28 runs of pulling off a shock win over much-fancied Afghanistan in last week's World Cricket League Division 3 tournament in Buenos Aires, only to have victory snatched from their grasp by a short, sharp shower which drove the players from the field and brought the match to a premature close.
But if the Caymans had a right to feel that the fates had been unkind to them, their pain is as nothing compared to that of Papua New Guinea, whose storming win over Hong Kong on the same day would have taken them through to the World Cup qualifiers in South Africa in April had Afghanistan or Uganda – whose game against Argentina was also rained off when they were in a poor situation – lost.
In the end, Afghanistan and Uganda pulled off comfortable victories when the matches were replayed on Saturday, and it was PNG who missed out on net run rate. Had either of those games been closer, even that might have been enough to get the Papuans onto the plane to Johannesburg.
Over a week's cricket, there are many performances which turn out in retrospect to have had a defining effect on the outcome.
Apart from those abandonments through rain the most obvious factor was PNG's collapse to 93 all out against Afghanistan: had they been able to manage a more competitive total, they might have reversed their run rate deficit and gone through instead.
Equally, Uganda's dramatic last-over, one-run win over Hong Kong was as narrow a victory as it is possible to imagine, and had Ronald Ssemanda not held his nerve to take two wickets in that over it would have been his side which would have missed out on the South Africa tournament.
And looking further back, the 121-run partnership for the seventh wicket between Rais Ahmadzai and Samiullah Shenwari, which enabled Afghanistan to recover from a desperate 53 for six against Uganda on the opening day, even though it wasn't enough to clinch victory saved their side from humiliation and kept their net run rate from beginning too far in negative territory.
It was a very tough competition, and one which was marked by many of the same features as have shown up in other WCL tournaments.
Once again, it was the bowlers who dominated, with only five totals over 200 being registered in fifteen matches, and Afghanistan's 230 for eight in their final match against the Cayman Islands the highest.
And the inability of sides to chase even modest totals was an even more disturbing characteristic: the team batting second won on only six occasions, and the highest total successfully chased down was Argentina's 165, which the Caymans passed for the loss of four wickets.
To some degree at least, this weakness in the batting may have been attributable to lively, bouncy pitches which gave seam bowlers plenty of assistance, but there was also a marked absence of batsmen who were able to adjust to the conditions and play positively enough to gain a measure of control.
If the pitches were more bowler-friendly than most of the sides were used to, the outfields were fast, and gave every encouragement for keeping the ball on the ground. Too often, however, the batsmen threw their wickets away by injudiciously taking the aerial route.
Few top-order batsmen showed any real determination to stay around for long: throughout the whole tournament only five batsmen managed innings of 100 or more balls, and among the top six in each side innings of 50 or 60 balls were much closer to the norm.
Only two century partnerships were achieved in the fifteen games, with no more than a further dozen reaching 60 or more.
Afghanistan managed to win the tournament without ever reaching top gear, and as the old saying goes, the really successful sides are the ones which manage to win even when they're not playing well.
Mohammad Nabi and Hamid Hassan, the stars of previous tournaments, were relatively quiet for much of the time in Buenos Aires, although they again finished as the leading wicket-takers.
Seamers Dawlat Ahmadzai and newcomer Mirwais Naziri bowled pretty well, but Hasti Gul Abed played only four games and claimed just three wickets.
It is, however, the batting which is likely to be most severely tested in South Africa.
Skipper Norooz Mangal, Rais Ahmadzai, Asghar Stanikzai, Samiullah Shenwari and Karim Khan all had their moments, but there's a lack of consistency which will continue to give coach Kabir Khan some cause for concern.
Uganda had the outstanding individual player in Kenneth Kamyuka, although it's a mystery why they continue to bat him at number eight.
His 18 wickets was a great effort, though, and he was well backed up by left-armer Charles Waiswa, Ronald Ssemanda, Danniel Ruyange, and off-spinner Frank Nsubuga.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Roger Mukasa is an aggressive opener who loves to take on the bowlers, while his partner Arthur Kyobe adopts a more measured approach but is still a powerful strokemaker.
Here, too, there are question marks against the middle order, and they may find the going tough against the more demanding attacks they will face in South Africa.
Unlucky as they were to miss out on the World Cup qualifier, Papua New Guinea had a young side which will undoubtedly have developed by the time the next Division 3 tournament comes around.
Willie Gavera, Loa Nou and Rarua Dikana were all impressive seamers, while openers Vani Vagi Morea and Chris Amini often got their side away to a great start. At 34 spinner Jamie Brazier may be one of the older members of the squad, but he adds variety to the attack and PNG may need his skills with both bat and ball for a while yet.
Hong Kong had the most disappointing tournament of all, having performed well in Tanzania in October to win promotion to Division 3.
Their batting appeared to be all at sea when chasing a total of 201 against Afghanistan, managed to throw away an apparently secure win against Uganda, and then collapsed to 91 all out against Papua New Guinea.
They have a squad of talented individuals and their spin attack is especially strong, but they didn't respond when the pressure was on, and their performances deteriorated as the week continued.
Hosts Argentina will be desperately disappointed to have finished without a win, and they and the Cayman Islands will need to fight their way back up from next year's Division 4 tournament.
All in all, then, there are many issues for players, coaches and national bodies to ponder on in the coming months. But there can be no question about the success of the World Cricket League concept, and the new level of competitiveness it fosters among the smaller cricketing nations.