Upsets the norm as competition among Associates hits fever pitch
The group stages of the T20 World Cup qualifier has come to an end, throwing up a lovely feel-good story - Papua New Guinea are in the "big dance" - and a host of trends. So let's dive right in
Associate parity grows
In the first several years of this tournament, upsets were rare and most favourites could be chalked up to win not just group matches but to hold form in the playoffs as well. That started to shift a bit in 2015. Jersey knocked off Hong Kong in their opening game, Papua New Guinea ended Ireland's 21-match unbeaten streak at the tournament, USA notched back-to-back wins over ODI sides Hong Kong and PNG, Hong Kong beat Afghanistan for the first time ever in T20 cricket and Oman produced a string of upsets in group play before outlasting Namibia in the playoffs to go to the 2016 T20 World Cup.
This trend has now gone even further. Two ODI nations - USA and Nepal - did not even make it to qualifier in the UAE because they were knocked over in their regional tournaments by Bermuda and Singapore respectively. Nigeria also arrived in place of the suspended Zimbabwe because they finished above Uganda in the Africa regional final (though rain played a part). Even Jersey, who have performed to a high competitive standard in the UAE, winning three out of six matches, barely scraped out of Europe after advancing past Germany on hundredths of a net run rate point.
This increase in the level of competition came through on the opening day of this tournament when Singapore upended Scotland. Canada, a team which no longer has ODI status and had never beaten a Full Member in a T20I, got past Ireland midway through the tournament. Jersey managed to trip up Oman on the final day of group play to deny them an automatic berth in the T20 World Cup despite Oman having been in sensational form all month beginning with a pentangular series win on home soil.
Death bowling has improved among Associate teams
If you're looking for evidence of the impact that the proliferation of televised T20 franchise cricket has on Associate teams, look no further than the skills on display at the death. On pitches that have generally favoured spin bowling for most of the tournament, whether in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, it is actually the pace bowlers who have consistently been at, or near, the top of the wicket-takers' list.
The amount of slower balls, cutters, and wide yorkers that have been sent down successfully throughout the week demonstrates that Associate players are improving these precise and in-demand skills. Likewise, the batsmen have showcased fantastic abilities in their efforts to counter, with the likes of Bermuda's Kamau Leverock and Namibia's Gerhard Erasmus showcasing deft ability to innovate and scoop.
Fielding and fitness standards generally have improved
With a few exceptions, the general fitness of all teams at the T20 World Cup Qualifiers has gone up greatly. Oman's first appearance at this event in 2012 saw them finish 0-7 in their eight-team group, with most matches being incredibly one-sided. Their rise in the ranking has not been just about batting and bowling improvements. Their fielding and fitness standards have gone through the roof and it is evident in plenty of other teams too.
Most notably, the foundation of Papua New Guinea's success is their fitness and fielding. They don't have anyone who bowls above 130 kph but they have outworked and out-hustled most teams to top their group. Their infectious energy will bring a brilliant spark to the opening stages of the T20 World Cup in Australia, and perhaps into the main draw of the tournament too. It is emblematic of a rise in standards across the board from past tournaments, when teams were flagging by the midway stage and players were regularly dropping with hamstring, groin and other soft tissue injuries.
Broadcast every match for the next qualifier
Many readers may be scratching their heads at some of the points above because unfortunately, a high proportion of televised matches have been one-sided. As a matter of fact, most of the best matches of the tournament were played off camera at the ICC Academy in Dubai and at Tolerance Oval in Abu Dhabi: Canada beating Ireland, Singapore over Scotland, Scotland clinging on at the end to beat PNG by four runs, Singapore getting past Bermuda at the wire.
It's not just the matches as a whole but some great individual moments as well: Norman Vanua's hat-trick against Bermuda, Leverock and Janeiro Tucker making spectacular one-handed catches against Singapore, Janak Prakash's courage coming back onto the field just 17 balls after he was struck in the face by a drive from Kyle Coetzer to bowl at the death against Scotland. Most regional qualifier matches were live-streamed and yet so many great moments in the UAE were played in the dark. It's up to the ICC to mandate this going forward.