Namibia go into Intercontinental Shield final with plenty to prove
The ICC's new Global Cricket Academy in Dubai will see serious action for the first time on Thursday, when the United Arab Emirates take on Namibia in the inaugural final of the Intercontinental Shield.
The non-first-class Shield competition has been overshadowed by its big brother, the Intercontinental Cup, but this match will be an opportunity for the Namibians, who reached the final of the previous edition of that competition and were controversially thrown out of the present cycle when it was restructured to make room for Zimbabwe, to prove their credentials in the longest form of the game.
This should be a fascinating match between contrasting sides, and the UAE go into the game knowing that they not only have home advantage, but that they are unbeaten in their three league matches, having posted a six-wicket victory over Namibia in Windhoek a year ago.
Nevertheless, the Namibians top the table, their first-innings lead in that game having given them an edge over the Emiratis, who took three points fewer from their draw against Uganda, and the African side will know that a draw in this four-day final will be enough for them to lift the Shield.
That's not an unlikely result, since both sides are strong in batting - although the new Global Academy pitch may prove something of an unknown quantity.
The Namibian opening pair of Raymond van Schoor and Ewald Steenkamp have both scored centuries in this competition - the latter's 206 against Bermuda was a notable achievement - while captain Craig Williams not only averages 89.66, but comes off the back of a century against Boland in last weekend's match in the South African domestic three-day competition.
He shared a big partnership in that game with Nico Scholtz, whose unbeaten 150 may well have ensured him a place in the side for the final. Then there are Sahel and Louis Burger, both capable of making runs, and the Emiratis will need no reminding of the batting skills of Gerrie Snyman, who once smashed a 113-ball 196 off their attack.
The pace attack will be led by Louis Klazinga, who has taken 18 wickets so far at an average of 19.33, and has 14 in the South African three-day competition at a remarkable 14.64. He will probably be partnered by Kola Burger, with Williams, Sahel Burger and perhaps Chris Viljoen providing back-up.
Spin options include slow left-armers Bjorn Kotze and Louis van der Westhuizen, Snyman (who has developed into a useful off-spinner now that he is no longer able to bowl fast), and the leg breaks of Tobias Verwey.
One of the issues facing the home side is finding a reliable opening partner for Arshad Ali, one of their most experienced and dependable batsmen. The middle order is, however, strong, with skipper Khurram Khan averaging over 50, Saqib Ali and Naeemuddin Aslam all having plenty of experience.
The new ball is likely to be taken by Qasim Zubair and Amjad Javed with Amjad Ali as first change, although it will be interesting to see whether the Emiratis bring in either Shaiman Anwar, who has first-class experience with Sialkot in Pakistan, or local product Shoaib Sarwar to reinforce the pace attack.
But it is the spin department which may in the end prove decisive, with slow left-armers Ahmed Raza and Khurram, off-spinners Mohammad Tauqir and Saqib, and perhaps leg-spinner Aamer Iftikhar, capable of doing serious damage, especially in the later stages of the game.
With the future shape of Associates and Affiliates cricket so uncertain, there is more at stake here than the outcome of the competition itself, and it is in everyone's interest that this match, like the Intercontinental Cup final along the road, produces a high-quality contest. Both sides have the potential to make sure that happens.