Asian Games preview
With the ICC having recently shut the door for the foreseeable future on cricket's participation in both the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games, regional games are currently cricket's only outlet into multi-sports events. The Pacific Games will feature cricket again at next year's event in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, but before then, and with a higher profile, the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea will feature cricket for the second time.
A 10 team women's tournament begins on Saturday, with the men's event - also with 10 teams - following a week later. All matches will be played at the newly constructed Yeonhui Cricket Ground, a picturesque 2,352 capacity venue close to the main Asian Games stadium.
The format for both tournaments will see four teams seeded in the quarter finals, to be joined by the top two from two first round groups of three teams each. The quarter finals will be followed by semi-finals with the gold and bronze medal matches both taking place on the final day of each tournament.
The two women's first round groups are somewhat idiosyncratically labelled C & D. Group C will consist of hosts South Korea - making their debut in international women's cricket - along with China and Hong Kong. The Koreans are something of an unknown commodity, but are unlikely to challenge China and Hong Kong, who both have a lot of experience in Asian regional tournaments.
Group D will feature Thailand, Malaysia and Nepal. Thailand are likely to be favourites to top the group having won the (40 over) ACC Women's Premier tournament earlier this year, whilst Nepal are very much a rising team in Asian women's cricket and are likely to take the second place from the group in the quarter finals.
The winners of Group C will come up against 2010 bronze medallists Japan - who usually participate in EAP regional events - in the quarter finals. Japan may have failed to win the most recent EAP women's tournament, but they are still one of the best associate sides playing in the event, and are likely to be a tough opponent for the team that comes out of Group C. The runners-up of Group C will take on Sri Lanka in the quarter finals. They opted not to play in the 2010 women's tournament, but have sent a strong squad to this event, with 10 of the players involved having played in the World Twenty20 earlier in the year.
The winners of Group D will be playing the defending gold medallists Pakistan. They have sent a full strength squad to the event, with only three changes from their World Twenty20 squad. Only one member of the squad didn't play on their recent tour to Australia. Likewise, Bangladesh, who will face the runners-up of Group D, have made just one change from their World Twenty20 squad.
With Pakistan and Sri Lanka odds on to end up meeting in the gold medal match, the bronze medal match will likely see Bangladesh coming up against an associate side. Whilst Bangladesh are the weakest full member side in the event, they will still be quite a challenge for an associate. With conditions very much an unknown though, a surprise could well be in the offing. As the cliche goes, anything can happen in Twenty20.
Without any break - possibly causing worries over what condition the pitches will be in by the end of the two weeks - the men's tournament will begin the day after the women's tournament.
Group A will see hosts South Korea come up against Malaysia and China. Whilst on paper Malaysia and China - despite the frequent failures of China's men's team - are the favourites to come through (with Malaysia likely to top the group, the South Korean team is undergoing one of the most intriguing experiments in recent years in cricket.
Coached by Julien Fountain, who played youth county cricket for Somerset and has been the fielding coach for a number of international teams including full members, most recently Pakistan, the Koreans have converted a number of professional baseball players into cricketers for their squad at the games. Fountain, who played baseball for the Great Britain national side and had trials with a number of Major League Baseball sides, has been singing the praises of his new charges in recent months, and is confident of them making it out of the group into the quarter finals.
Results on a recent tour of Fiji were mixed, with the team winning 4 of 11 matches, but they recently played a three match series against Japan - who have opted not to take part in the games - and won all three matches. Time will tell if the experiment is a success, but it's likely that countries with a baseball tradition that also play cricket will be keeping a close eye on the Korean team.
Group B meanwhile will feature Nepal, the Maldives and Kuwait. Nepal, who finished second in their first round group at the World Twenty20 earlier in the year, will be favourites to top the group. Kuwait had the edge when they met the Maldives in the ACC Elite League back in June, but with their expatriate contingent not eligible to play in this event (Asian Games rules mean that only nationals of the country can take part) the two sides are potentially more easily matched.
Kuwait will be the only one of the ICC's Arab members to be sending a team to the games, with higher ranked sides Oman and the UAE unable to raise a 15 man squad of nationals to represent them. That Kuwait have been able to do so should see them win lots of plaudits for their development policy, if not many matches.
With India again opting not to send a team to the games, and 2010 bronze medallists Pakistan also not playing, two associate sides are seeded in the quarter finals. The winners of Group A will come up against Hong Kong. Whilst Hong Kong do have ODI status and beat Bangladesh at the World Twenty20, their seeded status in this tournament has been a little controversial. They have tended to be on the losing side to Nepal in Twenty20 cricket, and will be in a weakened state for this event, with some of their first choice players unavailable. Whilst they're still a strong side, Malaysia are confident of topping group A and then getting to the semi-finals with a win over Hong Kong.
Afghanistan meanwhile will face the winners of Group B, potentially meaning we'll have another exciting contest against Nepal. With Afghanistan's World Cup preparation tour to Australia and New Zealand coinciding with this tournament though, they have sent what is pretty much the Afghanistan A side. Only Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shinwari of the squad would be in a full strength Afghanistan squad. A side of similar strength was recently able to beat a strong Zimbabwe A side in a four-day game though, so they'll still be confident of performing well enough to win a medal, possibly going one better than their silver medal in 2010.
The runners-up in Group A will come up against Sri Lanka, who lost out to Pakistan in the bronze medal match last time, at the quarter final stage. With a number of top Sri Lankan players otherwise engaged in the Champions League, they have opted to send something of a second string side, although most of the squad do have full international experience, with three having played in the World Twenty20 side earlier this year.
Defending gold medallists Bangladesh will be playing the group B runners-up in their quarter final. Unlike the Sri Lankans, Bangladesh are sending what is pretty much a full strength squad to the games, with Mushfiqur Rahim the only player missing, as he is getting married during the tournament. They are likely to be favourites to retain their gold medal.
Interestingly, the draw of the men's tournament is such that Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will meet in the semi-finals if they win their quarter finals, thus ensuring that an associate side will play in the final and be guaranteed at least a silver medal. It's probably the most intriguing international cricket event in some time, yet will no doubt be overshadowed by the hype juggernaut that is the Champions League.
For those who do follow the two tournaments though, they're set for an exciting fortnight of international Twenty20 action, with a lot of intriguing stories to pay attention to throughout. Full member sides may well be the favourites to win the gold medals in both events, but in many ways they're the most open cricket tournaments in some time.
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