World Cricket League Division 2 – Team Previews

Assad Vala-led PNG have seen an influx of youth recently, due to a few retirements.

Assad Vala-led PNG have seen an influx of youth recently, due to a few retirements. © Getty

With ODI status and a place in Associate cricket’s top-flight on the line, there’s never been more at stake at the World Cricket League’s final, frenetic tournament. World Cricket League Division 2, the decade-long competition’s final event, will play out over the next eight days at Windhoek, Namibia. Six teams are contending just four slots in the ICC’s new CWC League 2, with the bottom two banished to the CWC Challenge leagues.

Papua New Guinea, falling from pole position in the World Cricket League Championship a little over 18 months ago, have had a torrid time off it of late to find themselves back in Division 2. Overtaken by the Dutch, the Scots and Hong Kong they finished fourth in the WCLC, before five losses on the trot at the WC Qualifier saw them forfeit the ODI status they had won back in 2014. Since then their fortunes have turned again, winning their final ODI against Hong Kong, before going unbeaten through the two East Asia Pacific T20 regional qualifying tournaments to secure a spot at the T20 WC Global Qualifier. They arrive in Windhoek with a bit of momentum, but precious little competitive 50-over practice ahead of the tournament. A preparatory tour to South Africa has afforded a chance to reacclimatise to the longer format, but a heavy loss to Hong Kong in their warm-up match suggests the Barramundis may come into the tournament rather undercooked.

Assad Vala’s side has seen a few changes since that last ODI, with an influx of youth continuing following the retirements of stalwarts Mahuhu Dai and VV Morea, keeper-bat Simon Atai and right-arm quick Eisa Eka, the latest under-19 graduates to receive a senior call-up. Vala’s own experience, both in marshalling the top order and as containing off-spinner will likely be crucial, as will that of destructive opening bat Tony Ura, who has carried on his form from the WC Qualifier where he hit an unbeaten 151 against Ireland, top-scoring at the recent EAP T20 Qualifier and hitting PNG’s first T20I century. Yet despite Ura’s firepower PNG’s batting looked a real Achilles heal in Zimbabwe, the aforementioned game against Ireland the only time they passed 200 at the tournament. The Papuans’ consistently excellent ground fielding has in the past helped them defend sub-par scores, but given the batting firepower that most of their opponents boast it is unlikely to be enough in Windhoek this week.

Key man: Lega Siaka. Tony Ura may be PNG’s form batsman, and Vala their indispensable rock, but one suspects it may be the performance of PNG’s “pocket rocket” Lega Siaka that will determine his side’s fortunes over the coming days. Since becoming PNG’s first ODI centurion at the age of 21 back in 2014, Siaka’s form has of late been by turns sublime and wretched. In Zimbabwe a string of single-figure scores saw him dropped for their final match, but an extraordinary, unbeaten 118-ball 188 from No. 6 against Hong Kong at Amini Park last October was a stunning return. Besides his potentially explosive batting, Siaka’s increasingly impressive legspin will likely have a key role to play, especially since the departure of Dai has left the slow-bowling section looking thin. A good tournament for Siaka would remedy the most serious deficiencies in this PNG side, a poor one would leave them alarmingly vulnerable.

One to watch:Kiplin Doriga. The young keeper-bat had a modest outing at the World Cup Qualifier, but has a useful ability to make runs even when wickets fall at the other end. An ability to adjust his play to match situation, and a solid record against Hong Kong especially suggest he may be in for a breakout tournament.

Hong Kong gave India a mighty scare at the Asia Cup.

Hong Kong gave India a mighty scare at the Asia Cup. ©Getty

Hong Kong, who still more than PNG were well placed to challenge for the top spot in the last WCL Championship, likewise suffered a string of setbacks that culminated in losing their ODI status at the World Cup Qualifier, where they ended with the wooden spoon. Since then they have staged something of a recovery under new skipper Anshuman Rath, the 21 year-old leading them on a successful Asia Cup Qualifier campaign, before almost staging a remarkable upset against India at the tournament proper. With the then second-ranked ODI side in the world looking set for a 300+ score, an extraordinary spell of nine consecutive overs at the death from Kinchit Shah yielded three wickets and just 39 runs as India’s expected late explosion fizzled, and with just 279 on the board Rath and Nizakat Khan’s 174-run opening stand in reply looked to have set up what would have been ODI cricket’s greatest ever upset.

Yet if their performance against India highlights the capabilities of this Hong Kong side, it also illustrates their perennial vulnerability to batting collapses, over-reliance on a gifted top order, and general habit of contriving to lose from winning positions. It cost them two matches against the Dutch in the WCLC, and eventually the title and a spot in the CWC Super League. Moreover Hong Kong will be missing two key performers in Namibia. Nizakat Khan is missing the tournament for family reasons, whilst off-spinner Nadeem Ahmed, who was with Shah the pick of the bowlers against India and the lead wicket-taker in the WCLC, was one of the three Hong Kong players caught up in a match-fixing scandal last year.

Though former skipper Jamie Atkinson returns for the tournament, his youthful successor will be leading a comparatively inexperienced side – with an average age of just 24 Hong Kong are comfortably the youngest team in Windhoek. Despite a long pedigree in the WCL, Hong Kong have not had to contest such an eight-day divisional event since 2011, and it may all come down to how they handle the pressure of the punishing schedule when the metaphorical (and literal) heat is on. In respect of the latter at least a warm up tour to Malaysia will have helped Hong Kong acclimatise, though results from the tour were mixed. Reports from South Africa suggest Hong Kong also had the better of their warm-ups against PNG ahead of the tournament, but the fact remains the Hong Kong have a poor recent record in matches that matter.

Key man:Anshuman Rath. Widely regarded as the most promising young batsman in Associates’ cricket, the weight of expectation on Hong Kong’s skipper-opener will be immense. Hong Kong are capable of winning matches when he fails (and losing when he doesn’t) but Rath will swing the odds a long way for good or ill. A typically assured century against Malaysia last month bodes well in that respect, and Atkinson’s return will doubtless ease the pressure of command somewhat. A good tournament for Rath will likely be enough to secure safety for Hong Kong, as would a middling one if his side play to their undoubted ability, but few teams’ fortunes so closely track one player’s form.

One to watch:Jhatavedh Subramanyan. In Nadeem’s absence, a slot opens up in the spin attack and young leg-spinner Subramanyan is poised to step up. A more attacking option than Nadeem, but with the disciplined Shah and the experienced Ehsan Khan able to build pressure, Hong Kong can afford to take a chance on a young leggie playing a more attacking role.

 With ten years of experience, 24-year old Nitish Kumar will be key for Canada.

With ten years of experience, 24-year old Nitish Kumar will be key for Canada. ©Getty

Canada’s slide has been less precipitous than that of PNG or Hong Kong, their steady decline from runners-up at the 2009 WC Qualifier reaching its nadir when they were relegated to WCL Division 3 in 2014. The climb back to the top was halted at the previous Division 2 by the efforts of Karan KC and Sandeep Lamichhane, as their extraordinary last-wicket partnership saw Nepal to a last ball win and set them on the road to ODI status. Canada will hope to follow them this week, but though the cut-off has moved down two places this time round the competition will be no less cut-throat.

Since then the Canadians have seen precious little one day cricket, a loss to the USA in the most recent Auty Cup their only international 50-over outing. A preparatory tour to Sri Lanka will have served to reacclimatise the side to the longer format, though actual results from the tour remain shrouded in mystery. Last week’s training camp in South Africa has been marred by weather, a thunderstorm halting a promising display against a representative side drawn from the Afghanistan squad, who are in South Africa preparing for the World Cup. A single match against North West at Potchefstroom was the only game to be completed, with Canada recording a four-wicket win.

The Canada side returning to Windhoek has seen some changes, in part due the relaxation of the eligibility criteria. Rodrigo Thomas, Ravinderpal Singh and Romesh Eranga all come into the side, the latter two with substantial First Class and List A experience in India and Sri Lanka respectively. Leading them will be former Warriors and Mumbai Indians keeper-bat Davy Jacobs – newly qualified after having relocated to Toronto, where he runs a cricket academy. Though experience in full member domestic cricket has never been a guarantee of success in the pressure-cooker environment of the WCL, but its fair to say Canada return stronger than they were last year.

Key Man:Nitish Kumar. With ten years of international experience at the age of just 24, Nitish Kumar is already a comparative veteran of the Canada side. Though he has relinquished the captaincy to Jacobs he remains central to his sides hopes both with bat and ball. With the bat especially, his role at number three has been crucial in the past, able to function as a stabilising influence or to accelerate and press an advantage. His performances with the ball in the shorter format of late suggest his off-spin may also play a more significant role than last year.

One to watch:Hiral Patel. Long a regular fixture in the Canada side as a counter-attacking number 3 and occasional left arm spinner, Hiral Patel returns from a four year exile on the back of some impressive domestic performances, especially with the ball. Having forced his way back into the side, he’ll be heading to Windhoek with a point to prove.

Left-arm pacer Smit, who also bats lower down the order, has already established himself as a vital cog in the Namibian side.

Left-arm pacer Smit, who also bats lower down the order, has already established himself as a vital cog in the Namibian side. ©Getty

Namibia’sown domestic season having concluded just a couple of weeks ago, the hosts will at least be well used to the conditions. But the hosts’ last competitive List A fixture for the national side was over a year ago, at the previous edition of this tournament and there’s no denying they’ll be short on match practice. Last year Namibia came almost as close as Canada to making the grade, but whilst the competition has strengthened appreciably Namibia look more like a side treading water. The addition of Otago’s Christi Viljoen and North West’s Jean Bredenkamp will bolster both the batting and the bowling though, the two all-rounders being much missed at the previous edition.

After the disappointment of missing out in 2018, the hosts have opted for experience over youth this time round, with youngsters Petrus Burger and Lohan Louwrens, perhaps surprisingly, the pair to miss out to make way for Bredenkamp and Viljoen’s inclusion. Young skipper Gerhard Erasmus will thus have a few wise heads around him to share the burden of leadership, with Craig Williams rescinding his retirement for the tournament and former captain Jan Frylinck also on hand.

The hosts’ wealth of all-rounders also lends them batting depth as well as flexibility in selection, and in Bernard Scholtz the sort of proven wicket-taking spinner than several of the other sides lack. Though they head into the tournament as underdogs perhaps for the first time, precedent at least is on their side. Namibia have played in all four previous iterations of Division 2 and never finished outside the top four. With more on the line than ever they will hope to see out the WCL with that record intact.

Key Man:Christi Viljoen, Otago’s seam-bowling all-rounder’s commitments in New Zealand have seen him absent from the national side for long stretches, and his absence at the previous tournament was keenly felt. When has turned out for his country, as he did in their upset victory over Scotland in the last WCLC, his contributions can be telling. Should his inclusion in the squad again prove merely speculative, the hosts odds will suffer accordingly.

One to watch:. JJ Smit. A comparative youngster in this Namibia side at 23, left arm quick JJ Smit has already established a secure place for himself on the team sheet, and is generally entrusted both with the new ball and death-bowling duties. His role in part means he can be expensive, but rarely bowls without reward. His usual place in the order at 8 or 9 is also more a testament to Namibia’s batting depth than Smit’s limitations, and his ability to clear the ropes under pressure may yet prove an ace in the hole for the hosts.

Oman's chief weapon is their trio of quicks - Bilal Khan, Kaleemullah and Fayyaz Butt.

Oman’s chief weapon is their trio of quicks – Bilal Khan, Kaleemullah and Fayyaz Butt. ©Getty

Omanmade rather the wrong sort of headlines in the run up to the tournament when they were ignominiously skittle by Scotland for 24 during their recent ODI series in Muscat, but what was less widely reported was their turning the tables on the Scots in the following game with an emphatic 93-run win. This sort of wild inconsistency has been rather typical of the “Red Brigade” of late, and Zeeshan Maqsood’s side look capable of winning or losing against anyone at the tournament, and doing either by eye-catching margins.

Perhaps surprisingly for a Gulf country their greatest asset is their trio of quicks – Bilal Khan, Kaleemullah and Fayyaz Butt. For raw pace the latter two are likely the quickest pair in Windhoek, the former having a record of breaking bats and the latter reportedly still faster. The batting remains rather brittle however, perhaps not helped by rather unsettled selection.

The changeable nature of the largely expat cricket scene, in what is a largely expat-populated country, does ensure new talent is always cropping up but Oman’s struggle in settling on a best XI nonetheless lends itself to inconsistency on the field. Jatinder Singh’s comparative constancy in the anchor role will likely be key, though the additions of all-rounders Sandeep Goud and Sindo Michal lend the batting a degree of depth it had previously lacked.

Oman come into their third Division 2 more as wildcard underdogs than favourites, but their opponents will do well to be wary. Remarkably enough given that all but one of their opponents have featured in the tournament before, Oman are the ones ever to have won it.

Key Man:Bilal Khan. The left armer may lack the express pace of Butt or Kaleemullah, but his exemplary control and ability to swing the ball at pace make him indisputably Oman’s most valuable player. He topped the wicket tables in Oman’s successful Division 3 campaign with the white Dukes in hand, whether he can replicate that success with the Kookaburra this week will be crucial to his side.

One to watch:Sandeep Goud. An unbeaten 55 against Ireland just two months ago earned 27 year-old seam all-rounder Sandeep Goud a senior call-up and he has already repaid the selector’s faith, scoring consistently from the lower middle order, often coming in under pressure. In a tournament where runs are expected to be hard to come by, Goud’s ability to arrest collapses is an enviable asset

The USA, despite coming into the tournament as the bottom seeded team, is reckoned by most observers to be as clear a favourite as is ever found at such events. Certainly they will be the best prepared. A fortnight in the UAE last month was dedicated largely to 50-over cricket, with the States winning all but one of their seven matches including two victories against the UAE’s first team as well as a comfortable win over a touring Lancashire side. They continued their winning ways in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the tournament win a 90-run win over a Zimbabwe Select XI, and all told few sides have ever rocked up to a WCL tournament looking as confident as the USA have in Namibia this week.

Long preparation can have its downsides, with several of the squad picking up minor injury niggles or aggravating existing issues, of which Ali Khan’s back troubles are perhaps the most concerning. Khan is understood to be cleared for action ahead of the States’ first game against Oman on Saturday, but it’s a testament to the newfound depth of the US side that they’d likely be favourites even without their T20-franchise-league-trotting star quick.

New skipper Saurabh Netravalkar has a wider array of class options to choose from, in no small part due to the relaxation of the ICC’s eligibility criteria which has made it easier for players to qualify on residence, from which the former India under-19 left armer himself has benefited. Recent additions Aaron Jones and Hayden Walsh proved judicious acquisitions, but perhaps more importantly seem to have gelled quickly with the side, as indeed does former West Indies bat Xavier Marshall, back in the side and back in tremendous form with a brutal 170 of 147 in the UAE.

Indeed for all the advantages that the new flexibility in selection has afforded the US, the biggest difference between this American side and those that used to top out at Division 3 is, perhaps ironically, their cohesion and seeming unity of purpose.

Key Man:Steven Taylor. The only member of this USA squad both to have been born in the States and represented them at age-group level, big hitting batsman, sometime wicketkeeper and now multi-disciplined all-rounder Steven Taylor is arguably the most naturally gifted player in the side. A solid-looking opener capable of accelerating rapidly if needed, Taylor’s bowling has come along rapidly too since giving up the gloves, a threat bowling either off-spin or seam-up, the 25 year-old will be hard to keep out of the game.

One to watch:Aaron Jones. With an average age over 31 there are few real youngsters in this USA squad, so at 24 Queens-born, Barbados-raised leg-spinning all-rounder Aaron Jones is officially the “baby” of the team. He joined the team only just in time for WCL Division 3, but immediately made an impact – top scoring for them in that tournament with 200 runs. Back-to-back unbeaten knocks of 81 and 84 on tour against the UAE and Lancashire underscored the newcomers’ rapid ascent from rookie to middle order rock.

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