Tomorrow sees the Netherlands welcome Afghanistan to Voorburg for a much-anticipated 4-day Intercontinental Cup clash, with pole-position in the tournament notionally on the line. The two sides currently sit in second and third place on the table on 46 and 41 points respectively, trailing defending champions Ireland who have a perfect 60 points from their first three games, and a full 20 points from the match would see either side jump to first place at least until the end of the month when the Irish will have the opportunity to reclaim the position when they take on Hong Kong at Stormont.
Afghanistan's record in the competition is impressive, having lost only a single match since first qualifying for the competition in 2009 - the 2011-13 final when twin John Mooney five-fors saw them sink to a 122 run defeat to Ireland. Besides that game however, the Afghans have come closest to defeat in their two matches against the Dutch. Both at Amstelveen in 2009 and then three years later in Sharjah the Netherlands had looked on course for victory only for lower order heroics, from Samiullah Shenwari in the first instance and Afsar Zazai in the second, to see Afghanistan snatch improbable wins.
Conversely the Netherlands' performances had seemingly been on the slide since their 5th place finish in the 2007–08 competition, having gone winless for two entire tournaments before the current edition. That the Dutch even ran the Afghans close in their last two encounters was a surprise to some as despite the game's venerable history in the Netherlands, there is effectively no tradition of multi-day cricket in the country. The recent NSPS Three-Day Challenge played between the two Dutch regional Pro-Series sides was the first domestic multi-day cricket to be played in the country for nearly fifteen years*, though the success of the one-off game prompted many involved to ask why they'd waited so long, and may yet prove to mark the successful introduction of the format.
In the past the Netherlands have arguably been guilty of deprioritising the Intercontinental Cup, seeing it as an opportunity to blood young players whilst focusing on the 50-over and T20 formats. But the current competition has seen a marked resurgence for the Netherlands in red ball cricket and, having not won a four-day game since beating the UAE in 2008, the Dutch have won two out of three since Anton Roux - the driving force behind the Three-Day Challenge - took over as national coach.
Six points from a first innings lead against Papua New Guinea, followed by outright wins over Scotland at Voorburg and the UAE in Abu Dhabi put the Dutch in second place in the competition, the winner of which is currently slated to play the 10th ranked Test Nation in a four match home and away series with the promise of temporary dispensation to play Test matches for a cycle the reward for victory - though the currently stalled plans for an overhaul in cricket's international structure leave this much-vaunted pathway to Test Cricket in a state of some uncertainty.
If there is perhaps a degree of ambivalence in some quarters regarding the prospect of Test Status for the Netherlands, there is none to be found in the dressing room. Under the combatative leadership of Roux and captain Peter Borren the Dutch have gotten into the habit of winning and seem to have acquired a taste for it.
But if the Dutch are taking the competition one match at a time, Afghanistan have made their higher ambitions clear. Besides their formidable record in the Intercontinental Cup, Afghanistan also boast a domestic 4-day competition that would be the envy of a couple of current Full Members, and at last week's reception for the teams at the Afghan Embassy, his Excellency spoke unabashedly of the country's expectation to be playing Test Cricket before the decade is out, despite currently trailing the Dutch by 5 points.
The Afghans have dropped points conceding heavy first innings deficits against Scotland and Papua New Guinea - the former match being eventually washed out whilst the latter saw them post 540 in the second innings in a come-back victory - but an innings win over Namibia in Greater Noida in April has kept them within 20 points of the top of the table. A comprehensive win over the Dutch will mean an unequivocal lead will be within their grasp when they host Ireland in March of next year.
Read more: See how the teams line up in our head-to-head preview