Cricket beyond the big guns. Photo courtesy: Getty Images, AFP
Cricket beyond the Test world. Photo courtesy: Getty Images, AFP. Designer: Paulami Chakraborty

If, by some chance, you have landed on this article, you are probably cricket fan. In that case you have, at some point of time, had got into arguments with football fans. Chances are also very high that you have been countered with the question “how many countries play cricket?” While you cannot really blame them for that question, you do have your arguments: 105 countries play cricket at a level good enough to be granted ICC membership. One must remember here that unlike in football, the Caribbean Islands combine to form one team, as do England and Wales, or Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It took me a paragraph to realise that I have somehow managed to get into a cricket versus football argument, which was far away from what I had intended to write. It is not news anymore that Ireland and Afghanistan are fighting for Test status. On the other hand, Nepal, despite their lack of exposure, have one of the biggest fan bases in history. There are some, like UAE and Scotland, who have been around for ages, but have never really threatened to break through to the top echelon. Hong Kong, Oman, and Papua New Guinea (PNG), on the other hand, keep showing up and surprising people.

Ireland and Afghanistan deserve separate pieces, as does the much-followed side of Nepal. But as for the others, let us check them out, one by one.

Of hundreds, imports, and exports

Few gave Hong Kong a chance against the high-profile Irish when they locked horns at Bready in September. Hong Kong were without Mark Chapman, which tilted things even more. As things turned out, Nizakat Khan and Babar Hayat provided some breathtaking strokes to take Hong Kong to 169 for 5. Ireland were soon reduced to 24 for 4 by Tanwir Afzal and Aizaz Khan. They never recovered, and were bowled out for 129.

That remained the highest point for Hong Kong cricket this year. They did put up spirited shows in their limited outings in Asia Cup qualifiers. Few gave them a chance after Oman got to 180, but Babar played one of the most spectacular innings in T20I history. Unfortunately, his 60-ball 122 found no support (nobody else went past 15), and Hong Kong lost by 5 runs.

UAE and Afghanistan proved to be too strong, but there was some consolation. Despite playing only 3 matches Babar finished as the leading run-scorer of the tournament, with 194.

Chapman (a quizmaster’s favourite, for his ODI batting average stands at 151) has not played for Hong Kong after the tournament. He has preferred to play as an Auckland professional instead, and has not done too poorly.

It was not exactly an exchange programme, but Hong Kong fielded an Australian import this year. Ryan Campbell, who had played 2 ODIs for Australia in 2002, turned up to play 3 T20Is for Hong Kong this year.

An abandoned match and a 70-run defeat against Ireland meant that Hong Kong are at fourth spot in the ICC Intercontinental Cup. They are also third on ICC World Cricket League (WCL) Division One, which means they stand with a chance to reach the World Cup qualifiers.

The outstanding Omanis

Oman’s win over Ireland was perhaps the greatest cricket upset of 2016. Nobody gave Oman a chance before the teams faced off in World T20. You cannot blame them. Aamer Ali looks like a file-pushing clerk who takes the 7.50 train to work with an unassuming briefcase and lunchbox. Ajay Lalcheta bowls so slow through the air that the Bangalore traffic develops a superiority complex.

And yet, Lalcheta started the match with a maiden over and finished with 4-1-24-0. Zeeshan Maqsood and Khawar Ali treated the Irish attack with disdain. Aamer Ali kept his cool, smashing a 17-ball 32. Max Sorensen, defending 14 in the last over, bowled three full-tosses, two of which were head-high beamers. And Niall O’Brien, who had masterminded a chase to pull off an Irish victory against Pakistan in their maiden World Cup appearance in 2007, conceded four byes when Oman needed 3 from 3.

When the Netherlands match was washed out, Oman stood with a chance if they could sneak past Bangladesh. Unfortunately, they sank without a trace.

Earlier, they had survived a Chapman onslaught to pull off a 5-run win over Hong Kong in the Asia Cup qualifiers before Afghanistan and UAE beat them. Oman finished the year with 2 wins and 3 defeats from 6 matches. They were certainly not the worst.

Oman have also been taking strides in One-Day cricket. In the WCL Division Four held in Los Angeles, they beat Jersey, Bermuda, Italy, and Denmark, but lost to USA. They even topped the table. In the final they bowled out USA to 208, and were in control at 102 for 3 before collapsing. They lost by 13 runs, but still qualified for Division Three.

Oman had been languishing in Division Six in 2015. They topped the group. In May they topped Division Five as well. By November they had stormed through Division Four. Their breakneck journey through four levels in the span of just over a year has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Men in Orange

Netherlands bowed out of World T20 with their head held high. They were in the Bangladesh match till the last over, especially after Mudassar Bukhari smashed 16 off the 19th over, bowled by Al-Amin Hossain, leaving Taskin Ahmed to defend 17. They managed a mere 8.

The next match against Oman was washed out. When their last match against Ireland was reduced to a 6-over contest, Netherlands smashed 59 for 5. Paul van Meekeren came on to bowl when Ireland needed 32 from 4 overs. He dismissed Kevin O’Brien and Paul Stirling in consecutive balls. In the last over of the match he got two-in-two again, this time getting rid of Sorensen and George Dockrell.

The Dutch won by 12 runs and bowed out with a win and a defeat, both in close matches.

In the ICC Intercontinental Cup, however, Netherlands pulled off an excellent 4-wicket win over UAE, at Abu Dhabi. It was their first win in the tournament away from home since 2008. They went down to Afghanistan by an innings, but with 46 points, they occupy the third position on the table after the big two.

There is still no replacement for Ryan ten Doeschate, but Netherlands has been reinforced by the arrival of Roelof van der Merwe from South African ranks. Van der Merwe played a stellar role for the Dutch, scoring 48 and 27* and taking 4 wickets in the crucial UAE match. In the World T20 match against Ireland, too, he bowled a solitary over with figures of 2 for 3.

There is more good news. After missing World Cup 2015, Netherlands are in contention for 2019. Only four teams from ICL will go through to the qualifiers, and Netherlands are currently on second spot. In fact, they are tied on points with PNG (who have won 6) but have won a match less (5 won, 2 no result) and are ahead on net run rate.

Scotch games

When Preston Mommsen decided to call it quits in November, he had cited lack of cricket as the reason. While 66 international matches across formats does not sound too few for an Associate Nation cricketer over a six-year career, only 11 of them have been against Test-playing nations, almost always in ICC tournaments or as an annexure to a tour of England.

Scotland have played three World Cups (alternate ones, in 1999, 2007, and 2015), and have lost every single of their 14 matches. Outside World Cups, where they play non-Test-playing sides more, they have won 29 and lost 38, which does not sound too bad.

Unfortunately for Scotland, rain has been a persistent problem during their limited exposure against top-ranked sides. This year, for example, they were supposed to play 8 ODIs, 6 at home and 2 on a tour of Hong Kong. Two of the matches at Edinburgh were washed out after 47.2 and 38 overs of play respectively. One match in Mong Kok did not even begin. As for the other 5, they lost the first 2 (against Hong Kong and Afghanistan) before triumphing over UAE (twice) and Hong Kong.

Their finest effort this year, however, came in the World T20 encounter against Zimbabwe. It seemed a one-way contest after Zimbabwe scored 147 for 7 and reduced Scotland to 42 for 5. However, Richie Berrington and Mommsen added 51, and though both got out, Josh Davey smashed a 13-ball 24. Mark Watt took it down to 12 from 3 before they were bowled out.

Scotland still languish at the sixth spot of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, but once again, weather has played a crucial role in that. Their match against Hong Kong never started, and the one against UAE at Ayr was called off after 66 overs. The Afghanistan match had been abandoned midway last year as well, which means Scotland’s 4 matches include 1 defeat, 2 unfinished matches and 1 that did not start.

Mommsen has been replaced at the helm by the hard-hitting Kyle Coetzer. Coetzer will lead Scotland in tournament in UAE in January that has been named, rather innovatively, Desert T20. Unfortunately, despite everything, no significant improvement is likely to happen unless they can host matches in drier locations.

Scotland are also clinging on to the fourth spot in WCL Division One rankings. If they finish in the top four, they will be in contention for World Cup 2019.

Those men from Down Under

With their colourful attire, and caps with concentric circles on them, PNG are among the most vibrant sides in contemporary cricket. There is freshness in PNG cricket matched by none. They rarely adhere to MCC manuals, play cross-batted as frequently as any other side, and bowl and field with exuberance essential for any sport to become popular.

PNG beat Namibia this year in the ICC Intercontinental Cup. The match at Port Moresby was also the first one they hosted in the tournament. Captain Assad Vala smashed 144* in the first innings while Vani Moera got 61 in the second. And the Namibians collapsed, twice, against the swing of Norman Vanua (match haul of 6 for 62) and leg-breaks of Lega Siaka (7 for 55). Despite his bowling feats, Siaka, one of the major stars of the side, is more known as an extremely hard-hitting batsman.

With 40 points they are fourth on the table, but PNG have both big matches — Afghanistan and Ireland — out of their way.

The bilateral ODI series at Mong Kok earlier this year saw the rise of a star. Chad Soper, bowling brisk medium-pace, took 3 for 39 on his ODI debut. Unfortunately, his teammates deserted him as Hong Kong won by 106 runs.

An unperturbed Soper decided to take things in his own hands after PNG managed a mere 201 in the next match. He took 2 wickets in his second over; took another 2 in the middle overs; and claimed 2 more tail-enders. Soper finished with 6 for 41, the second-best ODI figures for any Associate Nation after Davey’s 6 for 28. PNG won by 14 runs, though Hong Kong claimed the series 2-1.

Earlier this year, PNG had also played 3 T20Is against Ireland, at Townsville, Queensland, Australia. They managed only 92 for 9 and 89 for 9 (in 11 overs) in the first two matches, but turned things around in the third. Once they made it to 116 for 8, Soper took over; he removed both openers and took the last wicket, and finished with 3 for 13. Ireland lost by 11 runs.

It is really a shame PNG do not play as frequently as some other Associate Nations. When they first played international cricket they became the first side in history to win their first 2 ODIs. Their current ODI numbers read 3-2 (all against Hong Kong); they also have a 3-3 record in T20Is.

PNG have also done a fantastic job in WCL Division One. As of now they sit at the top with 12 points. However, they cannot afford to be complacent, for they are separated by a solitary point from fourth-placed Scotland. Four teams will go through to the World Cup 2019 qualifiers.

Winners from Windhoek

For long, there was little more to Namibian cricket than their indifferent World Cup 2003 campaign, where they were steamrolled by one major side after another. They always had a junior side as well, but few talked about them.

All that changed last year. Not only did Namibia top 2015 Africa Under-19 Division One, they also had four names (Zane Green, Sybrand Loftie-Eaton, Jurgen Linde, and Mias Strauss) — including the top three — in the five leading run-getters.

Despite that, few gave Namibia a chance in the World Cup. They blew Scotland away, first restricting them to 159 and later chasing the target down in 26 overs.

Then came the stunner: Fritz Coetzee (3 for 16) and Michael van Lingen (4 for 24) put a stranglehold on South Africa, the others supported, and the formidable Proteans managed 136 for 9. Namibia kept losing wickets, but Lohan Lowrens kept his cool, and steered Namibia home. There was a last-minute panic when, from 126 for 5, Namibia suddenly became 136 for 8, but Lowrens made sure nothing went wrong.

The third match turned out to be an anticlimax: Bangladesh shoved them aside, bowling them out for 65. However, Namibia had made it to the quarter-final.

Namibia were never really in the match against India, and were blown away by England as well. The tournament ended on a high, when they defeated Nepal Under-19s by 15 runs, van Lingen taking 4 for 24 again. Namibia finished seventh.

The ICC Intercontinental Cup did not go well for Namibia. They had won the tournament opener, beating Hong Kong last year, but defeats against Ireland (last year) and Afghanistan and PNG (both this year) pushed them to the seventh slot among eight teams.

Home of the custodians

UAE is the home of ICC. Apart from the country themselves, they also host home matches of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they have barely covered themselves with glory this year. To begin with, they languish at the bottom of ICC Intercontinental Cup with 7 points from 4 matches; all those points came in a rain-washed draw against Scotland.

They also lost both their ODIs. And in T20Is, they have won 5 and lost 9, though that included a tournament of glory.

Rohan Mustafa played probably the innings of his life against Afghanistan at Fatullah in the Asia Cup qualifiers. His 50-ball 77 took UAE to 176 for 4. It was still not a steep target, but though Mohammad Nabi and Najibullah Zadran went past 20, the only real effort in the Afghanistan innings was Karim Sadiq’s 48-ball 72.

That 16-run win was followed by easy victories over Hong Kong and Oman, and UAE were through to the main stage.

To their credit, they did an excellent job against Sri Lanka. Captain Amjad Javed took out the top three to finish with 3 for 25. He found excellent support, and Sri Lanka were restricted to 129 for 8.

Unfortunately, Lasith Malinga took 2 wickets in the first over, and UAE soon became 47 for 6 once Nuwan Kulasekara and Rangana Herath came to the party. There was some fight from Swapnil Patil, and with 53 to score from 5 overs there was still a chance, but Malinga and Kulasekara were too formidable a force to handle. UAE lost by 14 runs. They lost against the other big nations as well.

With 12 wickets at 14.08, Javed was the leading wicket-taker of the series. Mohammad Naveed, also of UAE, came joint-second with 11.

The next level: Asia

Beyond the big guns, or even medium guns, cricket has thrived in Asia. Thailand hosted Women’s T20 Asia Cup. They did not reach 70 in any of their five matches, but came to their elements against Nepal.

An enthusiastic Thai attack, led by captain Sornnarin Tippoch (4-0-5-2) and Suleeporn Laomi (4-2-7-2), bowled out Nepal for a mere 63. Jyoti Pandey was the only one to reach double-figures, though there were 11 extras.

A Nepal comeback was ruled out when Nattakan Chantam and Sirintra Saengsakaorat added 46 for the opening stand. Thailand won by 8 wickets with 4 balls to spare.

Malaysia and Singapore, meanwhile, sit smugly in Division Three. Of the other teams, Saudi Arabia — the only inductee in the list of ICC Affiliate Nations — sit at the top of ACC rankings, while Kuwait ranks next. Some Asian countries are part of the East-Asia Pacific (EAP) Region.

A curious incident from an East Asia Cup match between China and Japan deserves a mention. In the third over of the Japan innings, Makoto Taniyama needed a change of bat. So he returned to the pavilion. Unfortunately, he did not inform the umpires (Alan Curr and Mihindu Perera), who had no option but to rule him retired out. It did not matter in the end, since Japan won easily.

The next level: Africa

The rise of Namibia as the third African power must have hurt Kenya, for they were in a World Cup semi-final less than 14 years ago. They are currently fifth in WCL Division One. Unfortunately, only four will make it to the World Cup qualifiers, and the top four (PNG, Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Scotland) are ahead by some distance. Kenya have beaten Namibia twice and UAE and Hong Kong once each, but they need to beat some of the others in the top half.

Uganda are Africa’s sole representative in Division Three. They will also host the Division Three tournament in May. Tanzania and Nigeria, having finished at the bottom of Division Five, are not a part of WCL anymore.

Of course, Eric Dusingizimana and his dreams about Rwanda Cricket continue…

The next level: Americas

International cricket returned to USA when India and West Indies played two T20Is at Lauderhill in August. Lauderhill also hosted 6 matches of Caribbean Premier League.

USA also hosted the WCL Division Four tournament in October and November. All matches were played at Los Angeles. They beat Bermuda, Italy (by 1 wicket), and Oman, but went down to both Denmark and Italy. They came second in the table (after Oman), and made it to Division Three.

Though both teams had qualified, there was a final. USA were quickly reduced to 5 for 3 before the spectacularly named Alex Adrian Anthony Amsterdam scored 50. There was some big hitting from Timroy Allen and Jasdeep Singh, and USA reached 208.

Jasdeep also bowled brilliantly, choking the Omani middle-order after they were 102 for 3. He took 3 for 29 while Timil Patel, the former Gujarat leg-spinner who had played Ranji Trophy, got 3 for 38. Oman finished on 195 for 9.

In Division Three USA will play, among other teams, neighbours Canada. Bermuda, who finished on fourth place, will retain their position. The others are some way off. Of the ones who are not a part of WCL, Suriname and Cayman Islands hold the top two places. Argentina, fourth in the group, rank highest among South American countries.

The next level: Europe

Ireland are already locking horns with the best in the world. Both Netherlands and Scotland are trying their best to make it to World Cup 2019. Unfortunately, Division Three does not have a European representative.

Denmark put up a gallant show in WCL Division Four Championship held earlier this year in Los Angeles. They crushed Italy by a 114-run margin and Jersey by 6 wickets. Unfortunately, they lost to Bermuda, but managed to stun eventual champions USA despite a daunting target of 262, mostly due to a fourth-wicket stand of 166 between wicketkeeper Freddie Klokker (86) and Zameer Khan (97*).

A defeat against Oman meant they could not make it to Division Three, but they had their revenge: in the third place match they beat Bermuda comfortably. The Copenhagen-born Amjad Khan, who had played Test cricket for England, took 3 for 14 in the match.

Unlike Denmark, both Jersey and Italy were relegated to Division Five — though not before a slice of history took place. The Jersey team included Tony Carlyon (46 years old) and his son Harrison (15). In the fifth-place decider match against Italy, they became the first father-son pair to play for Jersey together. It was Tony’s only match of the tournament.

Following relegation, both sides are currently in Division Five, alongside Guernsey. Of sides outside WCL, Norway and France hold the top two places.

Stockholm hosted the European Cricket Championship Division Two this season. Germany won the tournament while Sweden came runners-up.

Though Switzerland were the first country to have had their ICC Affiliate status revoked (in 2012), they are also the only country to host a cricket tournament played entirely on ice. Lyceum Alpinum XI won the tournament this year.

The next level: East-Asia Pacific

Unlike PNG, the others from the region have not been as prolific. Vanuatu did beat Nigeria but lost all other matches, and have been relegated from Division Five into nothingness, leaving PNG as the sole EAP representative.

Fiji, despite their glorious past, rank second among the non-WCL teams. Philippines, fourth in the region, hold the top spot among Asian nations.