Bertus de Jong
Tomorrow sees Kenya take on the Netherlands in the first of two World Cricket League Championship matches as the premiere Associates 50-over competition approaches denoument. Buffalo Park in East London will host the matches owing to concerns over potential unrest stemming from Kenya's upcoming elections, to the chagrin of the nominal hosts, but nonetheless a dynamic (if inconsistent) Kenyan side pose a real threat to the tourists' championship ambitions.
For the Netherlands, four points would see them take a step closer to sealing the WCLC title and the (seemingly quite literally) tantalising prospect of the 13th spot in the ICC's mooted ODI league. For Kenya, currently in 5th place trailing Hong Kong by a single point, the series is key to their hopes os breaking into the top four and securing direct qualification to the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe next year.
The Dutch head into the series as favourites, with a loss to Nepal last summer the only blemish on their record in the competition thus far, but memories of their calamitous defeat at the hands of Kenya at the 2014 Qualifier in New Zealand will doubtless linger, and once again perennial availability issues will prevent them from fielding a full-strength side. Despite sitting in pole position, the Netherlands recent performances have been by turns imperious and feeble. Tellingly the occasionally woeful fielding - especially in terms of catching - which has troubled the Dutch since the previous Zimbabwe series, was again in evidence both in Harare and in Dublin.
Kenya have their own worries heading into the series though, with a mixed record even against the weaker sides in the league and an acknowledged vulnerability to batting collapses, especially in the face of spin. With no other regular batsman averaging over 25 in the competition, Kenya have looked alarmingly dependent on skipper Rakep Patel and keeper/opener Irfan Karim to provide the bulk of their runs.
With former captain Maurice Ouma's exemplary domestic form not enough to win him back a place in the squad, Karim is likely to open the batting for the hosts - most likely alongside Alex Obanda. It was from the opener's slot that Karim hit the 84-ball 108 that sank Dutch hopes in New Zealand, and though Obanda has been in spotty form for the national side with a string of single-figure scores across formats, his domestic form for Swamibapa (with an average of 45 and a double century to his name), together with a couple of solid partnerships against Hong Kong, is probably enough to persuade the hosts to persist with the pairing at the top of the order.
That said, early in the competition Kenya have experimented with Dhiren Gondaria or young Gurdeep Singh at the top, with Obanda missing out or Karim dropping to three. Dropping Karim to 3 has much to recommend it, especially given his value when the shine is off and the quality of the Netherland's new-ball attack, but neither Singh nor Gondaria have made much of a case for a claim on an opening spot at international level.
The opening question is in truth more of an issue for the Dutch, as it has been for some time now. Coach Ryan Campbell has shown considerable faith in both Stephan Myburgh and Wesley Barresi in spite of both struggling for form all season, and that pairing remains the most likely for the 1 and 2 slots. Myburgh showed signs of a return to form against Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup last month when he struck an aggressive 85 under pressure in the second innings, and has generally taken a liking to Kenyan bowling in the past. Nonetheless his domestic form this season has been poor by his standards, and having missed the warm-up tour to Zimbabwe to attend the birth of his daughter may be lacking for time in the middle.
Meanwhile Barresi's season has been still worse, having struggled to find fluency all season and going poorly in Harare. Nonetheless it would be a bold move to drop what remains the Netherlands' most naturally gifted striker of the ball, especially given the lack of obvious replacements. Promoting Otago's Michael Rippon back to the opener's slot might be an option - he has done well there in the past - but the left-arm wrist-spinning all-rounder has not convinced with the bat either in the warm-up tour. Had Tobias Visée scored more heavily in Harare Barresi might have had more reason to worry for his spot and his gloves, but despite another fairly promising performance the HBS skipper likely remains in the "one for the future" box for now.
At first drop Ben Cooper remains a thoroughly hit-or-miss proposition, albeit one that Kenya will worry about should he come off. The younger Cooper is one of several Dutch batsmen equally capable of taking the game away from the opposition or squandering his wicket cheaply, and one of several that is assured of his spot in the line-up pricipally by want of a more reliable option. All told the consistent inconsistency of the Dutch top order remains a glaring issue, especially with the continued absence of Tom Cooper now compounded by the loss of the batting depth added by seam all-rounders Logan van Beek and Shane Snater, who will also miss both games.
Though he was arguably their greatest asset in the previous edition, the Dutch have managed without Cooper throughout the tournament so far. The absence of Snater and van Beek, however, will inevitably limit the depth of the batting. With van Meekeren, Klaassen, van der Gugten and Kingma on the roster the visitors do not lack for fast bowling options, but offer the same threat with the bat that Snater and especially van Beek provide.
For the opposition the number three spot is no more settled a question, of late filled by whichever of Karim or Gondaria isn't opening. The emergence of Rusheb Patel provides a more exciting option, his 95 on debut against PNG making a convincing case, but aside from a 50 against Qatar last year that remains his only substantial contribution for the national side. The final alternative for the slot, the 19 year-old Gurdeep Singh, has seemingly been shunted down the order after an indifferent run for the national side, and will likely come in at six or lower should he play.
The middle order for both sides is less of a concern, with respective skippers Peter Borren and Rakep Patel both in sublime form, and veterans Collins Obuya and Roelof van der Merwe likewise both sure picks. In a remarkable bit of symmetry, the captains of both sides are in the midst of their most productive seasons ever with the bat - Patel boasting a domestic double century and an average of 84, whilst Borren averaged over 100 in this season's Topklasse and struck an assured century against a near-full strength Zimbabwe only last week.
Kenya have nonetheless developed a tendency to collapse spectacularly after the departure of the top order, though vice-captain Shem Ngoche and both Nehemiah and Nelson Odhiambo are capable of aggressive counter-attacking innings there is an undeniable fragility to the Kenyan lower-middle order.
In the absence of Snater and van Beek, however, that vulnerability is potentially now a problem for the Dutch too.That said, the fact that in Rippon and van der Merwe the Netherlands have two first-choice spinners who are also first-choice batsmen, means the tourists can effectively afford to play an extra specialist bat or two. The return of Pieter Seelaar from injury, coupled with the encouraging form of Sikander Zulfiqar, means they actually have the personnel to exploit that advatage.
Competing with Seelaar and Zulfiqar for the sixth and seventh slots are Max O'Dowd and Visée, though Seelaar's experience and value as a potential third spinner makes him a near-certain choice, and Zulfiqar's showing against Zimbabwe has likely put him a nose in front of the pack.
The return of van der Merwe and Rippon to the Dutch side means more than just extra batting quality, the pair having been among the most effective slow-bowlers in the competition this cycle. Rippon's left arm wrist-spin has yielded 19 wickets at 15 so far in the league, second behind Hong Kong's Nadeem Ahmed in the wicket-taker's table, whilst van der Merwe has looked consistently dangerous both for the Dutch and for Somerset.
Conversely Kenya's slow-bowling options are rather less attractive. Offspinner James Ngoche has been absent from the team sheet for some time despite an excellent start to the competition, having run into trouble with his action, and Hiren Varaiya is a still more surpirising ommission, given his record in the tournament and his 40 wickets at 8.3 for the Stray Lions in the NPCA super league.
Though Patel's own off-spin has proved more than servicable thus far, and his vice captain Shem Ngoche remains a capable slow left-armer, the only genuinely attacking slow option open to the Kenyan selectors is the comparatively untested legspinner Pushpak Kerai. Kerai has evidently impressed coach Thomas Odoyo, and giving him a run out would certainly be a statement of intent, but blooding a young spinner against a side featuring such aggressive players of spin as Cooper and Borren would be something of a gamble.
Meanwhile the make-up of the Kenyan pace contingent isn't settled either. Though the dependable right-arm seam pair of Nelson and Nehemiah Odhiambo will likely both play, having performed consistently with the ball and occasionally with the bat throughout the competition, the remaining seamer slot is far from nailed down. Left-armer Lucas Oluoch was dropped for the Nepal matches, but his replacement Elijah Otieno failed to impress on comeback and has not made the squad. Instead pressing for the spot are Emmanuel Ringera and newcomer Peter Koech, with Ringera's five wicket haul against KwaZulu-Natal making a compelling case for inclusion.
The Dutch, meanwhile, even in the absence of van Beek and Snater, have options in the pace department. Whilst Timm van der Gugten's added value with the bat likely means his place is safe if he's fit, the allocation of the remaining spots between Paul van Meekeren, Vivian Kingma and Fred Klaassen will likely depend on an assessment of conditions on the day, with van Meekeren likely to play if the pitch looks to be lively, Kingma preferred in swinging conditions, and Klaassen's nagging left-arm discipline offering something of a middle course. Of the three van Meekeren made had the best of the Zimbabwe tour, though as ever competition for pacemen's places in the Dutch side is cutthroat.
The Netherlands bowling attack alone would make them favourites to take the full four points off a Kenya side in something of a collective slump, but they remain an understrength and unsettled team. Their hosts without question have the raw talent to take advantage of any lapse in concentration, as they have demonstrated in the past, and if they can match it with discipline or even just a bit of luck they have every chance of derailing the Dutch again.
Likely playing XI's:
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