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

Kenya will depend heavily on Collins Obuya to make an impact in the World Cup Challenge League

The 2023 World Cup in India may still be over three years distant, and a long way from the thoughts of the games' more favoured nations, but the qualification process is already well underway. And tomorrow (December 2) sees six more sides from Group B kick off their campaigns in Oman at the first edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League Meanwhile, Group A already had their first meeting in Malaysia in September.

The first contest on the other side of the draw was initially intended to be held in Hong Kong last month. However, a last-minute relocation owing to ongoing political unrest saw the tournament hastily rescheduled and relocated. As a result, Group B sides - Hong Kong, Kenya, Uganda, Jersey, Bermuda and Italy - will now play at Cricket Oman's new facility at Al Amerat, for the first of their three tourneys.

The Format

The new qualifying structure for the 2023 World Cup, which the ICC unveiled last year, saw a new twelve-team competition, the Cricket World Cup Challenge League, replace the lower divisions of the long-running World Cricket League. The twelve countries were split into two groups of six, each slated to contest three single-venue round-robin series over two-year course of the competition, carrying points though from each. The first such tournament was held in Kuala Lumpur in late September, with Singapore and Canada sharing the honours after the first round of Group A.

Effectively, each group will thus contest a triple round-robin, spread across three events; each side playing 15 matches in total, barring washouts. At each meeting, every side will face all its rivals once, thus playing five matches over the course of nine or ten days. The hectic schedule bears a close resemblance to the old WCL divisional tournaments; absent the finals and and placement playoffs that used to conclude such tourneys.

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. However, the stakes are significant; the tourney offering a chance to establish an early lead in what promises to be a close-fought contest.

With the league stretched over three separate meetings, the round of group games in the CWC Challenge League is perhaps not quite the do-or-die contest of a WCL tourney, but if the campaign is somewhat elongated, the stakes are arguably higher and the competition to establish an early lead likely to be at least as fierce. While there were usually two promotion slots on offer at each WCL divisional tournament, only the winner from each Challenge League group will progress to the Cricket World Cup Qualifier Playoff; a one-off six-team tournament taking the place of WCL Division 2.

At the Qualifier Playoff, the champions of Challenge League (Groups A and B) will face the bottom four sides from CWC League 2. And ODI status for the next cycle together with promotion to the next iteration of League 2 will be up for grabs for the top four finishers. The two finalists will also win a place at the 2022 World Cup Qualifier, and a chance at qualification for the World Cup itself.

At the other end of the table, the bottom two finishers in each group, four sides altogether, will find themselves at risk of dropping off the ICC's 50-over ladder entirely for the next cycle. The last two teams from each Challenge League group will have to face off against four of the teams currently not on the 50-over ladder (likely qualifying on the basis of T20I rankings rather than any hypothetical regional 50-over competition) at the 2022 Challenge Playoff. And would need 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, 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

The top-seeded side going into the first round of Group B matches, Hong Kong have had a torrid two years since they were challenging the Netherlands for the top spot in the final World Cricket League Championship back in 2017.

Failure at the World Cup Qualifier was followed by disaster at the final World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia earlier this year, where they finished dead last with just a single win, forfeiting ODI status and slipping back to the lowest tier of ICC 50-over competition. The team looks little like the side that briefly challenged India at the 2018 Asia Cup, lacking both confidence and a bagful of key players.

First of all, a match-fixing investigation saw Irfan Ahmed, Hasseb Amjad and Nadeem Ahmed getting lengthy bans, then skipper and stand-out bat Anshuman Rath called time on his Hong Kong career and decided to try his luck in India. It was followed by a dressing room mutiny that saw Babar Hayat, Ehsan Nawaz and Tanveer Ahmed part ways with the team immediately before the T20 WC Qualifier last month, where Hong Kong fell just short of qualification.

Conspicuously absent from the side that Aizaz Khan will lead to Oman is also keeper Scott Mckenchnie, who had performed so admirably in the absence of senior players. Nonetheless, under the guidance of Trent Johnston, this young Hong Kong side will not be outright underdogs either. Even out of form Nizakat Khan remains probably the most dangerous bat at the tourney. Meanwhile, Ehasan Khan is showing signs of finally transposing his domestic form to the international level. Youngsters such as Harron Arshad and Nasrulla Rana have also stepped up impressively after their rushed introduction to the senior side. That said, despite Hong Kong's impressive WCL record, this side is a profoundly untested one.

Likewise, coming off the back of a disappointing outing at the T20 WC Qualifier, Kenya will be looking to arrest a decade-long decline that has seen them slip from pre-eminence among the Associates to something of a cautionary tale.

The inscrutable black box, that is the Kenyan selection process, has thrown up a few surprises for the side's first competitive 50-over outing since their 4th-place finish at WCL Division 3 at the same venue a year ago. There have been recalls for the veteran Jadavji Bhimji along with the 46 year-old Lameck Onyango, the Swamibapa-dominated squad reportedly picked largely guided by domestic form rather than age considerations.

Of the squad that travelled to the UAE for the T20 Qualifier, Nelson Odhiambo, Jasraj Kundi, Alex Obanda, Pushpak Kerai and Elijah Otieno all miss out. Shem Ngoche has reportedly also been relieved of the captaincy. Even though no official announcement has been made on his replacement, the experienced Collins Obuya is understood to have take the reins. He leads what remains, for all their difficulties, a side that is probably playing at least one division beneath their natural level, but which has become seemingly accustomed to failure. The talent is still there, with Irfan Karim impressing and Emmanuel Bundi's new ball display against Papua New Guinea in Dubai, a reminder of the danger the Kenyan attack can pose, but there is little to suggest Kenya are poised to break their lamentable losing streak.

Kenya's neighbours Uganda had a still worse time of it when last they travelled to Oman, finishing bottom of the pile at the final WCL Division 3 with just a single win against Denmark at the tournament. And missed out on the T20 Qualifier after finishing behind Namibia, Kenya and even Nigeria at home in the Africa Regional Finals.

Nonetheless, under the guidance of Kenya legend Steve Tikolo, the Cranes arguably look in better shape headed into this tournament than their local rivals. A preparatory tour to Zimbabwe saw them record three wins out of five games, including besting Zimbabwe under 19s, with former skipper Roger Musaka seeming to have recaptured some of his old form after passing the armband to Brian Masaba.

Like their neighbours to the East, Uganda have elected to lean toward experience over youth, with the evergreen Frank Nsumbuga underlining his continued value as lead wicket-taker on the Zimbabwe tour and the veteran Charles Waiswa expected to take the new ball. On the other hand, promising but inexperienced players such as Zephania Arinaitwe and Fred Achelam sit out another tour. Having spent most of the ten-year history of the WCL bouncing around between divisions three and four, Uganda might look destined for a mid-table finish, but given the travails of some of their rivals, they may sense a chance to be something other than also-rans in this new competition.

Similarly Jersey, who never managed to climb past Division 4 in the old WCL structure, might sense something of an opportunity in Oman. The Channel Islanders have a habit of punching above their weight, and head into the tournament with a settled and balanced-looking side that above all seem to know their own game well.

Having got out on site early, Jersey will have had the benefit of acclimatising to the conditions, with three warm-up games against an Oman development side under their collective belts. Taking two wins from those three will doubtless lend some momentum, but perhaps more important is the combined form of the middle order fulcrum of Ben Stevens and Jonty Jenner. Should both continue to fire through the next ten days, an early lead is entirely plausible.

Bermuda likewise boast two of the most gifted young players at the tournament in Kamau Leverock and Delray Rawlins. Rawlins is already considered a potential England prospect down the line and Leverock emerging emphatically from his famed uncle's considerable shadow, with two defiant innings against Scotland and the Netherlands at the T20 WC Qualifier. Bermuda, though, went home from the UAE winless, and risk doing so again if they cannot rediscover the form and attitude they displayed in front of a home crowd at the Americas regional finals.

Though results in T20 are rarely a reliable guide to form in the longer white-ball format, off-field issues do tend to carry over between tours, and one could see enough of such off-field troubles in the Emirates. Off-spinner Rodney Trott took over the captaincy mid-way through that tournament after Dion Stovell threw in the armband mid-tour, but an avoidable complication with his passport will prevent him from travelling to Oman, with the 38 year-old opener Coolige Durham taking his place in the side. Terryn Fray will take the helm of what remains a mercurial side, more than capable of beating any of their rivals, but likely to struggle to find the consistency necessary to challenge for the top spot.

There is also Italy. Arguably lucky to squeeze into the Challenge leagues on the strength of a fourth-place finish at the final edition of WCL Division 5, which would have seen them relegated to regional qualifying under the previous structure. However, they also look a little more like dark horses than real underdogs, or at least potential spoilers for more-fancied teams going into the first round of games.

Italy have not played competitive 50-over cricket in ICC competition since their participation in Division 5 in Benoni in 2017, and will be something of an unknown quantity when they touch down in Muscat. Though now without such celebrated names as Carl Sandri and Peter Petricola, Italy have added a number of players with overseas experience to their roster since then, perhaps most notably Northamptonshire seam all-rounder Gareth Berg. Nonetheless of all the teams gathered at Muscat, Italy will be the most lacking in competitive match practice, all the more so in the longer format.

Squads

Hong Kong: Aizaz Khan (c), Ahsan Abbasi, Haroon Arshad, Waqas Barkat, Aarush Bhagwat, Adit Gorawara, Aftab Hussain, Raunaq Kapur, Ehsan Khan, Nizakat Khan, Hassan Khan Mohammad, Nasrulla Rana, Kinchit Shah, Shahid Wasif.

Kenya: Collins Obuya (c), Jadhavji Bhimji, Sachin Bhudia, Emmanuel Bundi, Aman Gandhi, Dhiren Gondaria, Irfan Karim, Shem Ngoche, Nehemiah Odhiambo, Lucas Oluoch, Lameck Onyango, Naman Patel, Rakep Patel, Rushab Patel

Uganda: Brian Masaba (c), Fred Achelam, Richard Agamire, Bilal Hassan, Roger Mukasa, Dinesh Nakrani, Frank Nsubuga, Arnold Otwani, Ronak Patel, Riazat Ali Shah, Henry Ssenyondo, Shahzad Ukani, Charles Waiswa, Kenneth Waiswa.

Jersey: Charles Perchard (c), Daniel Birrell, Corey Bisson, Dominic Blampied, Harrison Carlyon, Jake Dunford (wk), Nick Greenwood, Jonty Jenner, Elliot Miles, Rhys Palmer, William Robertson, Ben Stevens, Julius Sumerauer, Nathaniel Watkins

Bermuda: Terryn Fray (c), Okera Bascome, Onais Bascome, Derrick Brangman, Zeko Burgess, Deunte Darrell, Coolidge Durham, Kyle Hodsoll, Kamau Leverock, Tre Manders, Justin Pitcher, Delray Rawlins, Pierre Smith, Sinclair Smith, Dion Stovell.

Italy: Joy Perera (c), Rehman Abdul, Gareth Berg, Zahid Cheema, Madupa Fernando, Luis di Giglio, Rakibul Hasan, Fida Hussain, Nicholas Maiolo, Gian-Piero Meade, Michael Ross, Jaspreet Singh, Manpreet Singh, Nikolai Smith

Schedule

2 December, 09.30am: Uganda v Jersey (Al Amerat 1)

3 December, 09.30am: Italy v Kenya (Al Amerat 1); Hong Kong v Bermuda (Al Amerat 2)

5 December, 09.30am: Jersey v Hong Kong (Al Amerat 1); Kenya v Uganda (Al Amerat 2)

6 December, 09.30am: Uganda v Bermuda (Al Amerat 1); Jersey v Italy (Al Amerat 2)

8 December, 09.30am: Italy v Hong Kong (Al Amerat 1); Bermuda v Kenya (Al Amerat 2)

9 December, 09.30am: Kenya v Jersey (Al Amerat 1); Uganda v Italy (Al Amerat 2)

11 December, 09.30am: Hong Kong v Uganda (Al Amerat 1); Jersey v Bermuda (Al Amerat 2)

12 December, 09.30am: Bermuda v Italy (Al Amerat 1); Hong Kong v Kenya (Al Amerat 2)

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