Dubai: Two years ago, Afghanistan were the surprise package of the Twenty20 World Cup cricket qualifying tournament. Now they are the team to beat.
The defending champions are the top seeds at the 16-team tournament which begins Tuesday. But they are likely to face a stiff challenge from Ireland, who they beat by eight wickets in the 2010 qualifying final. Other teams including the Netherlands and Kenya are also aiming to reach the finals and a ticket to the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka from Sept. 18 to Oct. 7.
The shorter format should also offer plenty of opportunities for upsets with the likes of seventh-seeded Namibia, 16th-seeded Nepal and even the 15th-seeded United States looking to emulate the success of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan were the feel-good story of cricket when they won the 2010 qualifying tournament and were granted first-class status until 2013.
Made up of war refugees who learned the game from watching the likes of India and South Africa, the South Asian nation has gone from an ICC World Cricket League Division 5 nation in 2008 to one that earlier this year played its first ODI against a Test-playing country in Pakistan.
Afghan captain Nawroz Mangal said he is optimistic about the team's chances after they brought back former Pakistan bowler Kabir Khan as coach, and fielded lineup that features fast bowlers Hamid Hassan, Dowlat Zadran and Zamir Khan in the squad.
"We will try to use all the confidence from the fact that we have been champions from here back in 2010," Mangal said.
"We will fight every inch because it is our mission and target for Afghanistan to qualify. We have to live up to our high standards."
Ireland are a much more experienced side from the one that knocked out Bangladesh in 2009 to reach the Super 8 stage of the tournament, but failed to advance beyond the group stages in 2010.
"We have played a lot more cricket against the major teams and have shown that we belong," Ireland captain William Porterfield said.
"In addition, our lads have played a lot of Twenty20 cricket for counties in England. So all that experience is going to help the side in the tournament."
Porterfield also said he felt his bowling lineup would do well on the pitches in Dubai.
"We have quite a few allrounders, which gives us a lot more options with the ball. We have good spinners who can exploit the slow pitches in Dubai because they will be hard to get away," he said.
"There could potentially be low-scoring games as during the Pakistan-England series. So putting runs on the board will make any side competitive."
Netherlands, which narrowly missed out on the 2010 World Cup when they lost to Ireland in the qualifying semifinals, have vowed to win this year.
"I believe we now have a side capable of doing that," Netherlands captain Peter Borren said.
"In the past maybe we didn't quite have that belief, but this is a new team and I think other sides will be surprised to see by our improvement. The Netherlands team is on a rise and improving."
The team will be without Ryan ten Doeschate, a three-time winner of the ICC's Associate ODI Player of the Year award. At the time of the qualifying tournament in the UAE, Doeschate will be busy in a domestic T20 tournament in South Africa.
But that didn't seem to bother Borren, a New Zealander who moved to the Netherlands after representing his nation in the under 19 World Cup in 2002.
"Any team in world cricket would, of course, love to have a player of Ryan's class in its side. So, he will naturally be missed," Borren said.
"Given his commitments around the world, we are very used to playing without him. If you look at our top-five batsmen in Michael Swart, Stephan Myburgh, Tom Cooper, Alexei Kervezee and Wesley Baressi, there should be enough runs there to cover in Ryan's absence."
Then there is the likes of Nepal, who don't expect to advance but considers the tournament a chance to raise the profile of the game in the mountainous South Asian nation.
"To qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 would be the biggest achievement in the history of Nepalese sports," Nepal captain Paras Kadka said.
"We have the opportunity to create and make history and we will try and give every ounce of what we have in us to achieve our goal of qualification."
Schedule: (seedings in parentheses):
Group A: Afghanistan (1) Netherlands (3), Canada (6), PNG (8).
Group B: Ireland (2), Kenya (4), Scotland(5), Namibia (7).
March 13: Afghanistan vs. PNG; Ireland v Namibia; Netherlands v Canada.
March 14: Afghanistan vs. Netherlands; Scotland v Namibia; Ireland v Kenya.
March 15: Afghanistan vs. Denmark; Netherlands v Bermuda; Ireland v Italy; Namibia v USA.
March 22: Group A Winners vs. Winners of Group B for spot in Twenty20 World Cup.
March 23: Playoffs between second, third and fourth place teams in Group A and B.
March 24: Winners of March 23 match vs. losers of March 22nd match; Winners of that match play winners of March 22nd match to determine which World Cup group each team plays.