The forthcoming Desert T20 Challenge offers both a small glass of water for associate nations starved of regular competitive cricket outside of world events (or qualifying events for those world events) and also a tasty treat for fans of associate level cricket. With multiple nations attending itís a rare feast of quality cricket over an all too brief one week period.
The top eight teams ranked outside the full members (with Namibia replacing Papua New Guinea as P.N.G. declined the invitation to attend) will be split into two groups of four. The top two from each group will proceed to the semi finals where they will play cross over matches with the top finishers from the other group before going on to the final.
With such a short tournament, where every game matters in the quest for progressing, there is a veritable buffet of enticing cricket to be consumed and below is what, almost certainly, will be some of the tastiest treats of the series.
Group A: Afghanistan, Ireland, Namibia, United Arab Emirates
Letís start with the big one: Afghanistan v Ireland.
The two heavyweights of associate cricket, the two nations who have been consistently winning (almost) every associate nation cup, league, trophy and challenge over the last decade.
Afghanistan have pulled away from Ireland in the shorter formats of the game recently (Ireland still excel in the 4 day Intercontinental Cup) and you have to go back a full year to find a rare slip up from Afghanistan against a fellow associate member, losing by 16 runs to U.A.E. in February 2016. With series wins over full member Zimbabwe, winning both games in a two match series, progressing through the group matches of the World T20 unbeaten and their victory over the West Indies in the super 10 round, Afghanistan have shown they are the breakaway nation in the shortest format of the game.
Ireland remain a big noise in the second tier of world cricket but the sound of their winning was become a little less frequent over the last year or so especially in the T20 version. You have to go back five matches to February 2016 before you find a victory for Ireland in T20 Internationals (one over U.A.E. and two over P.N.G.) and their awful run of form dates back through the World T20 2016 where the lost group games to Oman and The Netherlands failing to progress to the second round as expected. Earlier in 2015, in the qualifying tournament for the world T20, Ireland struggled to make an impact on home field advantage losing to P.N.G. and Hong Kong along the way to finishing third overall.
An ageing team and a format that they have not excelled at in recent years may make Ireland a nation resting on past glories but anyone who writes them off is failing to see that talent that still runs deep in this team.
Afghanistan start as favorites for this match, and the tournament, having beaten Ireland 3-2 in recent encounters. This match is a tasty one to opening the Desert Challenge.
Group B: Scotland, Netherlands, Oman, Hong Kong
One of the tastiest treats from group B features two teams who have only played each other once before but have already built up a spiky history.
Netherlands v Oman. Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, January 15
The last time these two played each other was in the qualifying tournament for the world T20 back in 2015. On that occasion Oman claimed a surprise victory over the shocked Dutch by 6 wickets with an over to spare. A fuming Dutch captain, Peter Borren, barely mumbled the minimum amount of platitudes through gritted teeth at the post game ceremony before storming back to the dressing room to continue tearing into his embarrassed team.
Oman went on to be the surprise package of those qualifiers, coming from the lower ranks of the world league to finish in the top 6 and gain qualification for the World T20 in India.
A rematch between them in the group round was disappointingly washed out, cheating fans out of watching the Dutch attempt to extract revenge for their previous loss by crushing Oman and also seeing if Oman had what it takes to withstand the certain onslaught that was destined for them.
Oman did get to show their talent in the World T20 defeating the highly fancied Ireland by two wickets and will want to continue their upward movement in world cricket.
Since the shock loss to Oman the Dutch have barely had a misstep in the shortest format and went on to share the World T20 Qualifying Tournament with Scotland after the final was washed out. Which all makes this match, or rematch, against Oman a tasty treat indeed.
Talking of tasty grudge rematches of games that were washed out, The Netherlands v Scotland at Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi on Tue Jan 17 19:00 local (15:00 GMT) promises to be one of the meatier events.
With the ICC favoring Ireland and Afghanistan as the next potential test nations the rush to fill the vacuum comes from Scotland and the Dutch. Both nations have had resurgences of late both progressing through to the washed out final of the World T20 Qualifiers in 2015.
However Scotlandís progress has been more checkered losing as many game as they won. They will be looking to change that during this Desert Challenge but to do that they will have to start beating teams that are ranked higher than them and gain the consistent winning streak like the Dutch have worked to attain. Traditional slow starters in competitions like this Scotland will also have to put the specter of defeat to lower ranked teams to bed as, all too often, that can come back to haunt them if the calculations come down to net run rate.
Scotland enter this comp without their long standing captain Preston Mommsen. The loss of his experience, talent, and gritty mean streak will be missed but his replacement, Kyle Coetzer has all that in spades and will see this competition as his chance to move the team on from all the good work done by Mommsen while stamping his own authority on the team. And what better way to do that than by stamping all over their opponents.
This match between two big fish fighting it out to claim whoís the best associate nation (behind Ireland and Afghanistan... obviously) will carry huge weight towards that claim, and it promises to be a juicy treat indeed.
With such an evenly ranked collection of nations competing there is potential for every single match to be a mouth-watering affair with plenty of delicious twists in every game. While Afghanistan, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Scotland are the most likely to end up in the semi finals every nation has a good chance to oust any one of the above. But which one of the other four nations will play spoiler to them along the way.
The decision of Papua New Guinea not to attend will have disappointed many cricket fans who like their entertaining form of cricket and would have picked them to be the nation to upset the established apple cart. Their replacement, Namibia, may not have the same flamboyance as P.N.G. but they are equally capable of stealing someone else's thunder. And irony loves a good laugh. So, be on the lookout for the lowest ranked team in the comp, who wasn't even initially invited, to knock over one of the giants.
The prospect is delectable.
Regardless of who makes the semi finals they are sure to be hard fought and intense games full of spice. One potential match up to look out for will be Scotland V. Afghanistan, for no other reason than that Scotland have never beaten Afghanistan in a T20 International match. NEVER. In six attempts Scotland have not managed to get one victory over Afghanistan.
The Afghans will obviously be looking to keep their perfect record intact and have history, ranking, talent, and an abundance of confidence on their side. Itís surely a bone in Scotlandís throat and one they will be desperate to remove at the earliest opportunity. If the earliest opportunity comes in the final so much the better, and all the more tastier for cricket fans.
No matter who contests the final one thing is for certain, after the buffet of matches that preceded it, associate nation cricket, and the fans who love it, will be the real winner. With players and boards crying out for more cricket there is already talk of hoping to make this an annual event. Hopefully fans will be able to make a second trip to the buffet for a second serving of tasty treats in the desert sometime soon.