© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Never in the history of the sport (since the first Test) have two teams played their first Tests in the same year. This will make 2018 one of the most significant years in the history of Test cricket — though 2017 will be remembered as the year in which ICC made the official announcement. Unfortunately, the same announcement put Afghanistan and Ireland beyond the scope of this piece.

Yes, we have 12 Test teams now. Mind you, this is not the same as 12 countries: the West Indies themselves account for 16 nations, while England and Ireland combine with Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. That pushes the Test club to a 29-member league — three fewer than the number of countries that participated in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

So you basically know what to do when a cricket-agnostic tries to taunt you by mentioning that cricket is limited to a handful of nations. ICC has 92 other Associate members, and the list does not include Nepal, Falkland Islands, and USA.

Nepal, the country second to none when it comes to cricket enthusiasm, is temporarily suspended — as are Falkland Islands. USA were banned in July after ICC “had expressed significant concerns about the governance, finance, reputation and cricketing activities of USACA”.

Desert safari

Dubai and Abu Dhabi hosted the Desert T20 in January. For the uninitiated, the tournament featured eight non-Test-playing teams, who played 15 matches over a week. The no-nonsense schedule meant that the teams played on consecutive days, and the three knockout matches were played on the same day.

Afghanistan and Ireland prevailed, as expected, but there were some stellar performances from other sides as well — more so because Afghanistan and Ireland were both placed in the same group (A). Scotland breezed through Group B, but Oman, Hong Kong, and Netherlands all won a match each. Yes, it was an intense tournament.

For example, at one stage Afghanistan were left to chase 33 in 20 balls with 5 wickets in hand against UAE after Ahmed Raza put up a superb display of defensive left-arm spin bowling.

Louis van der Westhuizen of Namibia thrashed the Irishmen for a 25-ball 50. Interestingly, Namibia played the tournament only when Papua New Guinea declined to play. Namibia’s matches were not granted T20 International status.

In Group B, the Omanis bowled brilliantly to skittle out Hong Kong for 89. Refusing to give up, Hong Kong then bowled out Netherlands for 92. All this happened after Netherlands had beaten Oman, thus completing the cycle. And Oman pushed Afghanistan hard in the first semi-final.

The impact of the tournament, however, ran deeper than that. This was the first major T20 tournament of this magnitude with neither the World T20 nor a berth in it at stake. With Afghanistan and Ireland moving on to the big league, Desert T20 (and its equivalents) will be the ideal platforms for Associate Nations to showcase their skills.

Mayhem at Mong Kok

Hong Kong beat Netherlands in the Desert T20 match but lost their other two matches. In ODIs, however, they did considerably better.

They overwhelmed Scotland in the opening match of the UAE Tri-Nation series. It was an easy win: left-arm Nadeem Ahmed took 4 for 49 and Babar Hayat got 79, and Hong Kong won with over 5 overs in hand.

The teams meet more frequently than one may think. They had played 6 ODIs in 2016 (India-Sri Lanka played 9 times in 2017, to provide perspective).

Unfortunately, Hong Kong lost the decider against UAE (but not before Nizakat Khan got 93 in a team total of 174 and Ehsan Khan took 3 for 30).

Their other big victory was their 2-0 triumph over PNG. Hayat (77 and 89) contributed twice, but the second match really belonged to Anshuman Rath, who batted through the 50 overs for his 137-ball 143 not out. The bowling was immaculate, and PNG were bowled out in both matches.

Hong Kong also played Netherlands twice — and lost on both occasions. A match against Nepal was washed out, but Ehsan (5 for 17) and Aizaz Khan (3 for 14) running through the Rhinos in the other.

Unfortunately, the defeats against Netherlands turned out to be crucial. The Dutch finished with 22 points in the ICC World Cricket League Championship, ahead of Scotland (19) and Hong Kong (18). Hong Kong had the highest net run rate (1.082) of the eight teams (Netherlands had 0.978). This meant that had Hong Kong beaten Netherlands even once, they would have topped the WCL.

Hong Kong were held to a draw by Netherlands in the Intercontinental Cup. They lost to Afghanistan by an innings. Then Hayat set up the PNG match with 214, the first First-Class double-hundred by a Hong Kong batsman. Nadeem took 5 for 72 and 4 for 43 (he bowled unchanged in the second innings) and Ehsan had 3 for 66 and 5 for 13.

Hong Kong finished fourth. Hayat topped the batting chart in the entire tournament with 712 runs at 71.20.

Despite all that, their greatest contribution to the world of cricket in 2017 was probably the Hong Kong Blitz, a five-team T20 tournament where the locals got to rub shoulders with the likes of Shahid Afridi, Kumar Sangakkara, Mohammad Hafeez, Darren Sammy, Misbah-ul-Haq, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Jesse Ryder. The tournament, complete with DTC Mobile as their sponsors, has been successful enough to put Hong Kong on the map of cricket.

Valiant Omanis

Oman had beaten Ireland in the 2017 World T20 and came within striking distance of making it to the final eight. None of that happened in 2017.

It was not too bad this time, either. They lost to Netherlands, but bowled out Hong Kong for 89 with some asphyxiating bowling. Then they batted smartly, finishing the match off inside 11 overs, Aaqib Ilyas providing impetus with bat. Their batting meant that the defeat against Scotland did not matter: they qualified for the knockouts with an NRR of 0.89 (more than even group topper Scotland’s 0.667).

The semi-final against Afghanistan turned out to be a damp squib. Oman were restricted to 149 for 8 before Mohammad Shahzad went on a rampage and finished things off in a hurry.

UAE toured Oman in April. Oman lost their first match easily before losing a cliff-hanger in the second. Chasing 209 they were 85 for 1 (and 131 for 2) before the UAE bowlers kept striking. From 167 for 8 a resurgence began, and in the end Oman lost by 5 runs. Oman then won the third match by 38 runs, Zeeshan Maqsood scoring 73 and Mohammad Nadeem taking 4 for 25.

Oman also hosted USA, in December. Here Ilyas scored 65 with 4 sixes at the Al Amerat Cricket Ground, but a more astonishing display came from Maqsood: he hit 5 sixes in his 14-ball 38.

In other news, they topped the WCL Division Three, and have been promoted to Division Two.

The Orange nation

Netherlands had a wonderful year. They won the WCL, making them eligible for the ICC ODI League that will commence after the 2019 World Cup. Their ordinary show in the Desert T20 (they beat Oman, mind you) did not matter.

It was not only about the Hong Kong wins, either. Netherlands and Kenya had two close matches. The Dutch, after restricting Kenya to 226 for 7 (Chinaman bowler Michael Rippon took 3 for 35), were reduced to 98 for 4. Then Peter Borren (86*) and Rippon (56*) bailed them out.

Towards the end of the year they sealed the WCL with twin victories over Namibia. Wesley Barresi and Ben Cooper both scored hundreds in the first match, while Vivian Kingma took 6 for 39 in the second including a hat-trick. The finishing touches came from Ryan ten Doeschate: he may be 37, but Tendo still has a trick or two up his sleeve.

Set to chase 507 by Hong Kong in an Intercontinental Cup match, Netherlands were reduced to 105 for 5. Then Cooper (173*) and Peter Seelaar (138*) added an unbroken 288 — a new sixth-wicket record for Netherlands in First-Class cricket as well as in the history of the tournament.

They were dominated by Ireland in a draw, but crushed Namibia by 231 runs. There was another massive sixth-wicket stand this time: Roelof van der Merwe (175) and Max O’Dowd (126) added 285, missing out on the previous record by 3 runs. Van der Merwe followed this with 3 for 50, 12*, and 2 for 56 later in the match.

Netherlands finished a creditable third in the league, after only Afghanistan and Ireland.

Scotland create history

Scotland won every league match in the Desert T20, but their run stopped there. Set 212, they folded for a mere 113 in the semi-final against Ireland.

However, probably the biggest in the history of Scotland cricket came in June. Kyle Coetzer (109), Craig Wallace (58), and Michael Leask (59* in 38) lifted Scotland to 317 for 6.

It did not seem enough at first: the Zimbabwe openers added 55, and even after a collapse, Malcolm Waller went berserk, threatening to take the match away with a 62-ball 92. In the end Scotland won by 55 runs — their first victory against a Test nation.

Zimbabwe levelled the series, but Scotland marched on. Calum MacLeod (154) helped them prevail at Port Moresby, in the first international match played in PNG. They lost the return match, but the bowlers helped them beat PNG in both matches in WCL.

Scotland also beat Kenya twice quite comfortably, Safyaan Sharif ruling roost. However, despite going 1-0 up against Namibia, Scotland ended up losing the second match and finished second.

Their Intercontinental Cup outings involved two draws, against Namibia and PNG, before being completely outplayed by Ireland. They finished sixth.

Barramundis disappoint

There are superior cricket sides, but few sides draw as much attention on the cricket ground as the Barramundis. Few sides bowl and field with as much unadulterated enthusiasm and make a mockery of traditional strokeplay when they pick up a bat. And even if anyone does that, no side takes field in a clothes, especially caps, this spectacular.

PNG gave the Desert T20 a miss. They beat UAE and Scotland once each, but lost their 7 other matches, including their first ever home match, at Amini Park, Port Moresby. They toured UAE for a 3-T20I series and lost every single match.

However, their ODI win against UAE provided them with some boost in the WCL. The first was scripted by Asad Vala, whose off-breaks fetched him a return of 10-1-20-3. An excellent 2016 meant that they finished the tournament at fourth spot with 16 points.

Unfortunately, their Intercontinental Cup run finished with a draw and two one-sided defeats. They finished seventh, ahead of only Namibia. It was way below what was expected of them after they beat Netherlands in 2015 and Namibia in 2016.

Arabic adventures

UAE has Sharjah Cricket Ground, the stadium that has witnessed most ODIs. They also have Dubai, home to ICC. They host home matches for Pakistan and (at times) Afghanistan. They hosted the Desert T20 and the inaugural T10 tournament earlier this year.

However, this is about their national team. UAE won 4 ODIs this year (and lost 3, of which 2 were against Ireland). This may not look spectacular, but one must remember that they had won 6 and lost 23 before 2017. The T20I record (3 wins, 2 defeats) are also an improvement on 6 wins and 15 defeats.

The most fantastic individual performance of the year at the highest level came from UAE, at Abu Dhabi against PNG: Rohan Mustafa scored 109 and went on to take 5 for 25. He became the third cricketer to score a hundred and take 5 wickets in an ODI (after Viv Richards and Paul Collingwood).

Another astonishing performance came from Zahoor Khan. He routed Ireland, no less, with 6 for 34 on ODI debut. He took these 6 wickets in 15 balls.

UAE had the misfortune of being clubbed with Afghanistan and Ireland in the same group in Desert T20. However, they bounced back, winning the triangular tournament at home, defeating Scotland and Hong Kong in the process. They lost twice to Ireland next but had a convincing 5-1 result over PNG across formats.

Unfortunately, their poor show in the previous two years held them back in the WCL. They finished sixth, ahead of only Nepal and Namibia. They beat Nepal twice, but failed to defend 273 against Namibia.

They did much better in the Intercontinental Cup. Mohammad Usman (103) and Saqlain Haider (102*) gave them a 9-wicket win over PNG. The Namibia match was sealed by Adnan Mufti (110) and Ahmed Raza (6 for 61 and 2 for 45). They finished fifth despite the defeat against Afghanistan.

Most runs

ODIs T20Is
  Team M R Ave SR   Team M R SR
 Coetzer Scot 8 390 48.75 93 Shaiman UAE 5 214 140
 MacLeod Scot 8 324 46.28 76  MacLeod Scot 4 117 131
 Mustafa UAE 7 297 42.42 83  Berrington Scot 4 108 137
 Dai PNG 9 260 32.5 77  Usman UAE 5 101 103
 Hayat HK  4 245 81.67 78  Coetzer Scot 4 100 125

Most wickets

ODIs T20Is
  Team M W Ave Econ   Team M W Econ
Zahoor UAE 6 17 10.11 5.34 Javed UAE 5 9 5.61
Haider UAE 7 16 17.18 4.43 Naveed UAE 5 8 7.38
Reva PNG 6 12 23.83 5.46 Davey Scot 3 7 10.75
Vala PNG 9 9 22.55 3.44 De Lange Scot 4 6 6.18
Mustafa UAE 7 9 28.33 4.02 Vanua PNG 3 6 8.63

Most wicketkeeping dismissals

ODIs T20Is
  Team M C S   Team M C S
Cross Scot 8 14 2 Shabber UAE 5 3 1
Shabber UAE 7 11 1 Vare PNG 3 3

The Namibian battle

Namibia lost everything in the Desert T20, but pulled off a few upsets in the WCL. An all-round performance gave them a 50-run win over Scotland. They chased down 273 against UAE after being 130 for 5 in 26 overs: Gerhard Erasmus (77) and Sarel Burger (57*) pulled it off with 7 balls to spare. Against Netherlands they went down 0-2.

They finished last in the league, as they did in the Intercontinental Cup. They did not do too badly. For example, they declared on 403 for 7 against Scotland (Jan Frylinck 158), but rain left both sides with little time.

They did well against UAE. They conceded a 57-run lead before Craig Williams (5 for 22) bowled out UAE for 157. Chasing 215, unfortunately, they were reduced to 134 for 9. The last pair added 46, but it was not going to be enough.

Against Netherlands they were completely outplayed. They finished with 27 points. It was a poor show, given that the three teams above them got 47, 46, and 43.

The land of Khadka

Nepal started the year with a 1-1 draw against Kenya. The victory was achieved in the 31st over in the absence of Paras Khadka: Sharad Vesawkar took 4 for 28 before Gyanendra Malla and Dipendra Airee sealed the chase.

But that was all the glory they had: they lost to Netherlands (one match was abandoned) and UAE. They finished seventh, just below UAE.

However, their biggest moment came in the Under-19 Asia Cup. They fought tooth-and-nail in an attempt to defend 181 in 40 overs against Bangladesh. They lost by 2 wickets with 1 ball to spare.

Buoyed by the result, Airee single-handedly pulled off a historic win against India, with 88 and 4 for 39. Sandeep Lamichhane (5 for 8) then rolled over Malaysia for 45; Nepal stormed into the semi-final, where they were beaten by Afghanistan.

Despite having an ordinary year, Nepal are not short on enthusiasm. Everest Premier League keeps drawing crowds. This time they acquired Farveez Maharoof, a Test cricketer, as captain of Kathmandu Kings XI.

It might have been an ordinary year, but the immense following and the show in the Under-19 Asia Cup are reasons Nepal can be optimistic about.

The forgotten side

Fourteen years ago, Kenya had made it to a World Cup semi-final. Today they have almost ceased to exist as an international cricket side.

That was probably why their win in their first WCL match this year came as a surprise to many. Rakep Patel (remember him from the 2011 World Cup?) took 5 for 16 against Hong Kong. Set 200 in 43 overs, Kenya won comfortably after the first two stands took them to 140.

Kenya also beat Nepal. A target of 94 in 26 overs was supposed to be simple, but Kenya soon became 21 for 3 and then 71 for 5 before the same Patel saw them home.

They also beat Netherlands, in yet another close contest. Shem Ngoche (4 for 33) restricted the Dutch to 224 for 9 before Dhiren Gondaria (63) and Collins Obuya (56*) — survivor from their famous World Cup campaign — saw them through in the last over. Then they lost massively to Scotland.

Kenya finished fifth in the table. More hope lies ahead for them, for they have qualified for the Under-19 World Cup for the first time.

The next levels

Just like Oman, Canada were promoted to WCL Division Two. They will feature alongside Kenya, UAE, Nepal, and Namibia — the bottom four teams in WCL. Singapore and USA, third and fourth in the league, managed to retain their spots.

The tournament ended in a bizarre fashion. The fifth-place playoff between Uganda and Malaysia was abandoned without the toss. The third-place playoff had to be called off after USA reached 95 for 2 in 25.2 overs against Singapore.

Oman probably felt deprived in the final. They had the weather in mind when they set off to chase 177 in 24 overs. They raced to 50 for 2 in 4.3 overs, but no further play was possible. It did not matter, for Oman won the tournament anyway.

Uganda and Malaysia were relegated to Division Four, which is where the unusual cricket teams play. Bermuda is a known name, but Denmark is not as popular. The qualifiers from Division Five, Jersey and Vanuatu, are certainly not among names that feature among obvious cricket-playing nations.

Vanuatu qualified after pulling off a surprise win over Italy. Vanuatu, one of the new entries to the league (they qualified from the regional league), restricted Italy to 183. Then they won comfortably in the 35th over, Patrick Matautaava shepherding the chase.

But who were there in Division Five? Qatar continue to stay, while Italy, Germany, Guernsey, Ghana, and Cayman Islands have been relegated to regional tournaments. As for the rest, we need to wait.

Earlier in the year, Ghana had emerged triumphant by making a clean sweep of the Africa Region, defeating Botswana, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, and Sierra Leone.

There were only two teams in the Americas Region. The sides played thrice, and Cayman Islands beat Argentina on all three occasions.

The route was not as easy for Qatar. They won 5 of their 6 matches, losing only to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia won their first 5 matches as well. The last match was fittingly between the two sides.

Mohammad Nadeem (3 for 11) and Inam-ul-Haq (3 for 10) skittled out Saudi Arabia for 94, but the chase was not easy. They were soon reduced to 24 for 4 (and 65 for 5) by Ibraul Haq and Imran Arif before they won by 5 wickets.

Bahrain, Kuwait, hosts Thailand, and Bhutan all participated, and finished in that order. China came last following a string of embarrassing performances: 28 against Saudi Arabia (who scored 418); 57 against Kuwait (460 for 7); 56 against Bhutan; 55 against Thailand; 74 against Qatar; and 65 against Bahrain. Meg Lanning’s trip has probably not worked.

Germany had an easy route despite losing to Sweden: they beat Norway, Austria, Belgium, and France quite comfortably. And as for East Asia Pacific, Vanuatu (the surprise package of the year) beat all their opponents — Fiji, Samoa, Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan.