As the world and European tournament structures become more settled, the countries which will be contesting the European Division 3 competition in Belgium in the coming week know that success here could be the beginning of an odyssey which eventually leads to the chance to compete on a much larger stage.
Eight European countries have already qualified to take part in the five divisions of the ICC World Cricket League, and with potential promotion to Division 2 on offer for the winners of this week’s tournament, the matches in Belgium are truly early steps on a ladder which leads – at least on paper – to participation in the High Performance Programme and a future World Cup.
The preliminary stage will be played in two four-team groups, based on the results of the 2005 tournament and last year’s Division 4 championship. Top seeds Spain will take on Portugal, Croatia and Finland in Group A, while hosts Belgium (seeded second) will contest Group B with Malta, Isle of Man and Cyprus, who finished second to Finland in their first European outing in Division 4 in 2006.
Spain have one of the most experienced squads, with eight of the side which finished third in 2005. They will be hit by the late withdrawal of Dutch-based opening batsman Tony Barca Bowman, but with a team built around captain Graham Howe and allrounder Ben Fletcher they have a good basis for going a step further this time.
Like many other sides at this level, Portugal rely on a mix of foreign-born expatriates, largely of South African or Pakistani origin. They will be again led by fifty-year-old Akbar Saiyad, who was born in the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Two of the six century-makers in 2005, Tariq Aziz and Rizwan Khaliq, are again in the squad, as is medium-pacer Nadeem Butt, one of the leading wicket-takers in that tournament.
Croatia are comparative newcomers to the European cricketing scene, having made their debut in the European Representative tournament in 2000. They have a nucleus of players, under the leadership of John Vujnovich, whose origins lie in the substantial Croatian diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, who have made a big contribution to the rapid development of cricket in Croatia. They have yet to click in European competitions, although they won the 2004 Representative Championship, and Christopher Pivac was the leading run-scorer last time.
Having been relegated in 2005, Finland bounced back by winning the Division 4 tournament last year, and will hope to avoid a rapid return to the lower ranks. They have largely stayed with the squad which won promotion, again including the Swedish-born brothers Michael and Christopher Shaw as well as the Afghan-born Ekhwelpak Kuchey and Moradi Mohibullah.
In the other group, Belgium have the advantage of playing on home soil, and they have a very different squad from that which played two years ago, only six players having retained their places. Shikkoh Malik takes over the captaincy, and a player to watch may be seventeen-year-old opening batsman Nirvam Shah, who captained the Belgian side in the recent Under-19 Division 2 championship in Jersey.
Malta are another side who draw their strength from a large component of experienced players, many of them either Australian-born or drawn from Malta’s community of Subcontinental origin. They finished sixth last time, but will be hoping to improve on that performance this year. Michael Caruana is again the skipper, while the side’s leading run-scorer in 2005, John Callus, will again be in the party.
The Isle of Man made their senior debut two years ago, and struggled somewhat on Belgium’s artificial pitches. They, too, will be looking to improve on that performance this year, and they have included seven new players in their squad. One of the most interesting is eighteen-year-old Daniel Kniveton, who was Player of the Tournament in the Under-19 Division 2 a couple of weeks ago.
Having finished second in the Division 4 competition in 2006, Cyprus step up a grade this time. They adapted quickly to the competition last year, and will relish the chance to compete at a higher level. They, too, testify to the importance of Europe’s Asian community in the development of cricket, and all but two of the squad were born in the Sub-continent.
Whatever the outcome, this week’s event will be a true festival of cricket, with progress to the 2008 Division 2 tournament a strong incentive to all the sides to do well.