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Cricket news - CWC Challenge League A - Round One - Ready Reckoner

[File photo] Hosts Malaysia will kick-start the tournament against Denmark

While Cricket World Cup League 2, ICC's premier Associate 50-over competition, enters its second round in Florida, for those teams one step down the pecking order a more arduous road to the 2023 World Cup begins in Malaysia this week.

The first of the ICC CWC Challenge Leagues, the two parallel competitions that together make up the lowest rung of the 2023 World Cup qualification ladder, gets underway at Kuala Lumpur today, with hosts Malaysia welcoming neighbours Singapore along with Canada, Denmark, Vanuatu and Qatar to contest the first of the three round-robin tourneys which comprise Challenge League Group A.

The Format

Under the new structure rolled out by the ICC last year, the lowest three divisions of the old World Cricket League have been folded into a twelve-team competition dubbed the Cricket World Cup Challenge League. The twelve sides have been split into two groups of six, which will each contest three single-venue round-robin series over two-year course of the competition, carrying points though from each. In effect, each group will thus contest a triple round-robin spread across three events, each side playing 15 matches in total, weather permitting.

This week's tournament in Kuala Lumpur marks the first such tourney, with the parallel Group B - comprising Hong Kong, Uganda, Kenya, Bermuda Jersey and Italy - scheduled to meet in Hong Kong for their first round of matches in early November. With every team playing each of their rivals once over the course of the ten-day event, the first iteration of Challenge League Group A looks a lot like a divisional World Cricket League tournament in terms of schedule, albeit without the customary final and placement playoffs.

What's at Stake

With the contest essentially split over the course of three events, the first iteration of the CWC Challenge League is not quite the pressure cooker of a World Cricket League divisional tournament, nonetheless the stakes are significant, the tourney offering a chance to establish an early lead in what promises to be a close-fought contest.

At the conclusion of the three-event league, only the top team from each of the two groups will progress to the Cricket World Cup Challenge Playoff, a one-off six-team tournament which effectively replaces the old WCL Division 2. There they will be joined by the bottom four sides from CWC League 2, with the top four finishers there gaining ODI status and a berth in the next iteration of League 2, while the two finalists will also win a place at the 2022 World Cup Qualifier, and a chance at qualification for the World Cup itself.

So long as the game's pinnacle event remains a ten-team affair that will remain a remote prospect, with only the top two teams from the Qualifier afforded a place at the India 2023 World Cup. A shot at ODI status and the the 36 fixtures afforded by League 2 remains a realistic prospect for the winners of each Challenge League group however.

Conversely, the fifth and sixth-placed sides in each group run the risk of dropping out of ICC 50-over competition entirely. The bottom two finishers from each Challenge League will have to face off against four qualifiers (likely determined through T20I rankings rather than regional qualifying) at the 2022 Challenge Playoff, needing a top-four finish at the eight-team event to reclaim their place for the next iteration of the Challenge League.

Whilst the new structure, by guaranteeing participation in three events across the cycle, provides a degree of stability to the teams' fixture lists and thus takes some of the pressure off compared to the do-or-die WCL divisional system, the overall stakes are commensurately higher, with no way back for relegated teams until the next cycle begins. Conversely, for the teams that do well early, there is a chance to lock in future fixtures well ahead of time and potentially even earn a shot at a turn on the global stage.

The Teams

Hosts Malaysia are coming off a disappointing showing in their last outing at an ICC tournament, finishing with the wooden spoon at the Asia T20 Regional Finals in Singapore in July. Though home advantage traditionally conferrs a significant edge in such intensive 6-team tournaments, Malaysia had equally disappointing redults in the two 50-over tournaments they hosted last year, falling just short of promotion in the final World Cricket League Division 4 in April as Denmark held them off to claim second place on net run rate and finishing fifth of six at the Asia Cup Qualifier in September.

Yet in their opening match of that tournament they showed they have potential to upset more established sides, left arm spinner Pavandeep Singh's remarkable spell of 3-13 in 10 overs seeing eventual champions Hong Kong subside to 161 all out in what would be the only match they lost. Ahmad Faiz' side have generally played their best cricket in front of a home crowd, their best result in the old WCL being a 3rd place finish in Division 3 at Kuala Lumpur five years ago, which by rankings is the equivalent of a second place finish in the Challenge League. To find the consistency to go one better across three tournaments is a tall order, but the hosts remain something of a banana skin for more fancied sides.

Of those Canada are unarguably the favourites to eventually top the group, with a disappointing fifth place finish at the final Division 2 in April - which saw them relegated to the second tier of associate competition for the next three years and deprived of ODI status - marking a new nadir in the fortunes of a side used to competitng with the top non-test sides. Skipper Davy Jacobs has since parted ways with his adopted country following that disappointment in Namibia and then a pay dispute relating to the Canadian GT20 franchise league, but the remainder of the side seems to have bounced back impressively.

Under new captain Navneet Dhaliwal Canada went unbeaten through the recent Americas T20 regional qualifier in Bermuda, and Dhaliwal's own form seems only to have benefitted from the new responsibility. Though missing Jacobs and the veteran Rizwan Cheema - arguably the two most dangerous bats in the side - as a balanced fifty-over outfit Canada look comfortable favourites ahead of the tournament.Youngsters Abraash Khan and Harsh Thaker come into the side, along with the eye-catching inclusion of former Afghanistan under-19s seam all-rounder Shahid Ahmadzai, who sought Asylum in Canada after absconding from the Afghan camp at the 2009 Under19 T20 qualifier in Toronto.

Also among potential contenders are Denmark, who will return to Kuala Lumpur with a degree of confidence, having pipped the hosts to promotion in their own back yard on their last visit, for WCL Division 4 last year. The Danes will be somewhat understrength, however, with a number of established players declaring themselves unavailable for the tour owing to work or personal commitments. They will be without Bashir Shah, Anders Bulow, Saif Ahmed and Mads Henriksen, whose hitting turned heads at the recent ECL club championship at La Manga. The veteran Freddie Klokker will be on hand, however, and will doubteless prove invaluable both with the bat and as a source of advice and support for skipper and opening bat Hamid Shah - whose own form will likely be key to his side's chances.

Meanwhile Malaysia's near-neighbours Singapore, who like Denmark come across from the old WCL Division 3, will be looking to shake off their reputation as the "nearly-men" of Associates cricket. Having repeatedly missed out on promotion to the upper divisions of the WCL, often by the narrowest of margins, Singapore have regularly been just a stone's throw from the top flight without ever quite making it. They rather broke that streak with a surprise victory at the recent Asia T20 regional finals however, trouncing favourites Nepal in the de-facto final by fully 82 runs to book a place at the Global Qualifier in the UAE next month.

A barnstorming 77 off 43 balls from newcomer Tim David played a decisive role in that game, and the Singapore-born, Perth-raised Scorchers bat will doubtless continue to prove an considerable asset to Singapore. Yet while David's addition to the roster provides something of an x-factor for the Singapore batting, their victory at home in the T20 regional final was at least as much attributable to a broader improvement in recent years, first under the leadership of the long-serving Cheetan Suryawanshi and latterly under Amjad Mahboob, who took over the reigns after the Asia Cup qualifier. The emergence of youngsters such as 20 year-old opener Rohan Rangarajan and keeper-bat Manpreet Singh alongside seasoned campaigners such as off-spinner Selladore Vijayakumar mean Singapore look well placed push for a top-table finish.

Coming up from the old Division 5, Vanuatu are a side that consistently punch above their weight, managing to survive at or about the bottom of the WCL structure for almost the entire course of the competition, scraping promotion even as divisions were regularly abolished behind them.

They will again start the tournament as underdogs, though that's rarely seemed to phase them in the past, and they will be buoyed by the return of star all-rounder Patrick Matuatavaa to the team after work commitments had kept him off the team sheet for their most recent competitive outings, whilst former South Australia keeper-bat and current Vanuatu Cricket CEO Shance Dietz also looks set to make a return to the Vanuatu side. Coming off a five day warm-up tour to Brisbane under the guidance of new coach Clint McKay, the islanders will be set on knocking over some of the bigger teams, even if a serious challenge for the top spot in the extended threefold competition will require rather more consistency than they have ben able to muster in the past.

Fellow Division 5 graduates Qatar have also roped in a big-name coach ahead of the tournament, with former Pakistan international Shahid Mahboob taking charge of the gulf state side late last year. Since then the Qataris have shown themselves to be a dangerous outfit, notably picking up a win over Nepal at the Asia T20 regional finals where they finished second behind Singapore.

Qatar will be missing a few senior figures, however, most notably off-spinning opener Inam ul-Haq and leggie Tamoor Sajjad, both of whom have captained the side, as well as seam all-rounder Nouman Sarwar. In their stead seam spearhead Iqbal Hussain Chaudhry will lead the side, though he will have his work cut out for him, and with so many key names missing out will likely have to lead from the front.

The Conditions

The tournemant will be hosted across two venues, the first being Malaysia's flagship ground, the Kinrara Oval, which was spared from closure thanks to a grassroots campaign against a proposed redevelopment of the site last year, and the second the Selangor Turf Club, both to the South of Kuala Lumpur. The weather is certain to be hot and humid, and indeed tournaments in Malaysia have traditionally been a gruelling test of stamina for visiting teams.

Afternoon thundershowers are likely and often dramatic, though the exemplary drainage at both grounds means that play usually resumes swiftly, and even total inundation need not precipitate abandonment. Though both grounds deal with the weather well, neither are traditionally overly batsman friendly, and first innings scores over 220 or so have almost invariably proved to be winning ones in recent tournaments held at Kuala Lumpur.

Squads

Malaysia: Ahmad Faiz (c), Rashid Ahad, Syed Aziz, Virandeep Singh, Pavandeep Singh, Aminuddin Ramly, Anwar Rahman, Dhivendran Mogan, Norwira Zazmie, Muhamad Syahadat, Suharril Fetri, Shafiq Sharif, Zazril Rahman, Mohammad Hafiz Khair

Canada: Navneet Dhaliwal (captain); Abraash Khan, Cecil Pervez, Dilon Heyliger, Hamza Tariq, Harsh Thaker, Nikhil Dutta, Nitish Kumar, Ravinderpal Singh, Rodrigo Thomas, Romesh Galkandage Don, Saad Zafar, Shahid Ahmadzai, Srimantha Wijeyeratne

Denmark: Hamid Shah (c), Abdul Wahab Hashmi, Frederik Klokker, Zameer Khan, Rizwan Mahmood, Anique Uddin, Jino Jojo, Jonas Henriksen, Nicolaj Damgaard, Taranjit Bharaj Singh, Oliver Hald, Zishan Shah, Delawar Khan, Lucky Ali Malik

Singapore: Amjad Mahboob (c), Aryaman Sunil, Vinoth Baskaran, Sidhant Singh, Tim David, Aahan Gopinath Achar, Manpreet Singh, Rezza Gaznavi, Anantha Krishna, Arjun Mutreja, Anish Paraam, Rohan Rangarajan, Janak Prakash, Navin Param

Vanuatu: Andrew Mansale (c), Clement Tommy, Nalin Nipiko, Apo Stephen, Wesley Viraliliu, Ronald Tari, Williamsing Nalisa, Joshua Rasu, Kalo Shem, Jelany Chilia, Jamal Vira, Trevor Langa, Simpson Obed, Shane Deitz, Patrick Matautaava.

Qatar: Iqbal Hussain Chaudhry (c), Mohamed Rizlan, Mohamed Awais Malik, Saqlain Arshad, Zaheeruddeen Ibrahim, Khurram Shahzad, Kamran Khan, Qalandar Khan, Owais Ahmad, Gayan Budhika, Mohamed Nadeem, Dharmang Patel, Musawar Shah, Syed Tameem.

Schedule

16 September: Denmark v Malaysia (Kinrara Oval)

17 September: Singapore v Qatar (Kinrara Oval); Canada v Vanuatu (Selangor Turf Club)

19 September: Canada v Malaysia (Kinrara Oval); Singapore v Denmark (Selangor Turf Club)

20 September: Denmark v Vanuatu (Kinrara Oval); Malaysia v Qatar (Selangor Turf Club)

22 September: Canada v Qatar (Kinrara Oval); Singapore v Vanuatu (Selangor Turf Club)

23 September: Singapore v Malaysia (Kinrara Oval); Denmark v Qatar (Selangor Turf Club)

25 September: Canada v Denmark (Kinrara Oval); Malaysia v Vanuatu (Selangor Turf Club)

26 September: Vanuatu v Qatar (Kinrara Oval); Canada v Singapore (Selangor Turf Club)

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