High stakes in Singapore as WCL4 begins
Three teams from ICC's European region will join three from Asia in next week's World Cricket League Division 4 tournament in Singapore, with the prospect of promotion into the upper tiers of Associate cricket at least theoretically on the table.
The top two sides from this competition will go on to play in Division 3 in Uganda in October, and beyond that a place in Division 2 and perhaps even ultimately in the first-class Intercontinental Cup, although some aspects of the structure remain unconfirmed beckons the ambitious.
As is usually the case, the Singapore tournament brings together two sides, Jersey and Malaysia, promoted from Division 5 in Kuala Lumpur in March; the third- and fourth-placed teams (Singapore and Denmark respectively) when Division 4 was last held, also in Kuala Lumpur in 2012; and the two sides relegated from Division 3 in Bermuda last year, Oman and Italy.
Having started in Division 2 when the WCL was introduced in 2007, Oman find themselves at their lowest historical point, but they will have been encouraged by their fourth place behind Afghanistan, the UAE and Nepal in the ACC Premier League tournament in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Their leading run-scorer there was a newcomer, opener Zeeshan Maqsood, who made 167 runs at an average of 33.40, and other new faces in the WCL are 31-year-old Pakistani-born batsman Arif Hussain and his 32-year-old compatriot, seamer Mohammad Nadeem.
Skippered by experienced wicketkeeper-batsman Sultan Ahmed, the Omanis also have a batting order which includes the hard-hitting Zeeshan Siddiqui, Adnan Ilyas and former captain Vaibhav Wategaonkar, but they are likely to miss the reliable, long-serving allrounder Hemal Mehta with both bat and ball.
Hosts Singapore come into the tournament off the back of even more recent competition, having hosted the ACC Elite League over the past week. While their opponents here represent a considerable step-up from the likes of Bhutan, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia and even Kuwait, there can be little doubt that the ACC programme gives them valuable preparation for the WCL challenge.
Four of their squad will be taking part in the League for the first time, one of whom, slow left-armer Sachin Maylavarapu, will turn 23 on the first day of the tournament. The others include teenage opener Archit Goenka, young spinner Suresh Appusamy, and 30-year-old batsman Andre de Lange, who has played first-class cricket for Free State and Boland in his native South Africa.
The hosts' attack, which includes such seasoned campaigners as captain and medium-pacer Saad Janjua, whose 28 WCL wickets so far have come at an average of 14.25, seamer Amjad Mahboob, slow left-armers Abhiraj Singh and Anish Param (the latter now studying at and gaining first-class experience with Durham University), and off-spinner Dharmichand Mulewa, is likely to prove a key factor in their hopes of achieving the heights of Division 3 for the first time.
Italy, who like Oman will be hoping for a quick return to Division 3, make two changes to the squad which was relegated a year ago, bringing in two players who cut their teeth in last year's World T20 Qualifier in the UAE: 27-year-old batsman Joy Perera and Warnakulasuriya Fernando. But they will be without the experience of Middlesex allrounder Gareth Berg, who is ineligible for this event, and, no less important, that of left-hander Peter Petricola, whose 192 runs in Bermuda made him their leading run-scorer in that tournament.
On the other hand, they still have prolific mainstay Andy Northcote, going into his sixth WCL campaign with 791 runs to his name at an average of 30.42, skipper Damian Crowley, and Dinidu Marage, who has demonstrated his usefulness in the shortest form of the game and will be aiming to extend that success to the 50-over format.
Again, though, it may be Italy's bowling which is crucial to their chances of gaining promotion. Seamers Gayashan Munasinghe, Dilan Arsakulasuriya, Carl Sandri and left-armer Vincenzo Pennazza form its core, with variation coming from Crowley, Marage and Fida Hussain.
One of the keenest points of interest in the tournament will undoubtedly be the return to the Danish ranks of fast man Amjad Khan, now 33, whose distinguished twelve-year county career with Kent and Sussex earned him 347 first-class wickets and two England caps. Once again eligible to play for his native country, he will turn out in a Danish shirt for the first time in 13 years.
Two members of the last Danish side he played in, in Toronto in 2001, are still in the squad, and one of them is another with first-class experience in England, wicketkeeper-batsman Fred Klokker. Klokker has made a total of 748 WCL runs at 37.40, and along with skipper Michael Pedersen he will again form the backbone of the batting, especially in the absence of the latter's elder brother Carsten, the Danes' leading run-scorer two years ago.
Only five other members of the 2012 side besides Michael Pedersen and Klokker have been included this time. There are recalls for Zishan Shah, who last played for his country in 2010, Raja Basit Javed, Kamran Mahmood (who rejoins brother Rizwan in the squad), Anders Bülow and Yasir Iqbal most of whom have appeared in T20 tournaments in the meantime but apart from Amjad Khan one of the trump cards may again be leg-spinner Bashir Shah, whose 13 wickets in the 2012 campaign was a key factor in their survival.
Of the two sides promoted from Division 5, Jersey will again be led by Peter Gough, going into his seventh WCL tournament, although he is still only 29. He has a total of 1215 runs in his six tournaments to date at an average of 40.50, but Jersey's key batsmen in Kuala Lumpur were Ben Stevens (403 runs at 67.17) and Nathaniel Watkins (224 at 37.33), who shared three century partnerships, including one of 152 against hosts Malaysia in the final.
Stevens also claimed 13 wickets with his left-arm spin, bringing his aggregate for the WCL to 67 at 15.56, and with Tony Hawkins-Kay and Corey Bodenstein spearheading the seam attack, and the hard-hitting Dean Morrison and Ed Farley at the top of the batting, the islanders have a well-balanced side which has learned to cope with the demands of cricket in the Far East and may challenge for one of the top two slots.
They have made two changes in the squad from that which played in March, with Sam Dewhirst rejoining brother Andrew in the side after a four-year absence, and youngster James Duckett earning a first outing with the senior squad after graduating through Jersey's junior ranks.
Malaysia, too, will be hoping to reach the heights of Division 3 for the first time, although their last place in the ACC Premier League, two spots below Oman, suggests that this may be beyond them.
Led by captain Ahmad Faiz and Nasir Shafiq (the latter making 346 runs at 86.50 as they won promotion from Division 5), the batting is not without some quality, but they struggled in the Premier League, only Faiz and Anwar Arudin managing an aggregate of 100 or more across the five matches.
Much will therefore depend on the ability of the bowlers to contain opposing sides, with seamers Hassan Ghulam, Suresh Navaratnam and 18-year-old Wafiq Irfan, backed up by off-spinner Khizar Hayat and slow left-armer Shahrulnizam Yusof, constituting a reasonably well-balanced outfit.