It has become almost cliche to describe Associate cricket tournaments as "matches with context" due to their "merit-based opportunities" that result from events such as the World Cricket League promotion and relegation pathway. So the final round of the WCL Championship may well be regarded as contextual cricket on steroids, given the immense ramifications at stake.
Heading into the seventh and final round of a competition that takes place over two-and-a-half years, the winner will be guaranteed a slot in the new 13-team ODI league for 2023 World Cup qualification. Four teams still have a mathematical shot at finishing on top, while a fifth is fighting to secure a spot in the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe or else be relegated to WCL Division Two in February, where they would have to battle with five other teams for the final two spots available at the World Cup Qualifier.
Whereas matches in the previous six rounds were staggered over the course of several months, the final round has simultaneous games on December 6 and 8, which means the two days are sure to be filled with plenty of twists and turns up until the final ball. Here is a look at the four match-ups in the final round and what is at stake for each side.
Netherlands v Namibia - ICC Academy 1
Netherlands currently sit in first place on the points table, with 18 points, two clear of second-placed Papua New Guinea. Two wins will clinch the title for Netherlands. A loss in either match could open the door for Papua New Guinea, while two losses could see them leapfrogged by Scotland or Hong Kong as well. Regardless of the week's results, however, they have already clinched a spot in the World Cup Qualifier.
Netherlands have received a big boost in the form of Ryan ten Doeschate, who came out of international quasi-retirement at the age of 37 to join the squad. If he can demonstrate the form from his last appearances for the side, at the 2011 World Cup where he scored two centuries to cement his place as an all-time great of the team, then it will be hard for Namibia to compete.
With three wins in 12 matches so far, Namibia are tied for last place and have already been guaranteed relegation to Division Two. They will host that tournament in February for a chance at a top-two finish to reach the Qualifier, but here they have the opportunity to play spoiler. Already over the summer, they seriously dented Scotland's chances of a first-place finish with a convincing 50-run win in Edinburgh and it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could do it again in Dubai.
Papua New Guinea v Hong Kong - ICC Academy 2
PNG won six straight matches at one point, from rounds two through four, and had briefly held the tournament lead. Split matches in rounds five and six against UAE and Scotland allowed Netherlands to get back in front with a two-point lead. Their form has gotten worse with two ODI losses to Scotland in Dubai last week, followed by an innings loss to Hong Kong in the I-Cup match preceding these ODIs.
Despite that, PNG are still in a decent position because they hold a crucial tiebreaker, with Netherlands having claimed two points via a pair of washouts against Scotland. If PNG win both matches and Netherlands lose at least one to Namibia, PNG will be champions by virtue of having one more win than Netherlands. PNG are technically through to at least the World Cup Qualifier because even if they lose twice to Hong Kong, only one of Kenya or Scotland can mathematically finish above them.
Their captain Assad Vala is fifth-highest run-scorer overall in the competition with 388 runs, but averaged just 24.75 across the last four ODIs against Scotland and needs to step up to give PNG their best shot at four points.
Hong Kong are in fourth place and have the longest odds in terms of teams with a mathematical chance of a first place and a spot in the ODI league. However, they have the best net run rate of the top four teams. To finish first, they will need to win both matches and hope Netherlands lose both games against Namibia and Scotland lose at least one of their two against Kenya with a higher net run rate than Netherlands.
On the flip side, they are also in danger of falling back to Division Two based on the tiebreaker. Hong Kong are two points clear of Kenya at the moment but that is due to two washouts that resulted in split points. If Hong Kong drop both matches, Kenya could catch up with one win over Scotland. Kenya could then take a spot in the World Cup Qualifier by virtue of more wins. A more realistic goal for Hong Kong than reaching the ODI League would be to win both games to secure their place in the Qualifier.
Anshuman Rath has been the leading scorer in the competition with 498 runs from just eight games at an average of 62.25 while captain Babar Hayat produced an unbeaten double-century in Hong Kong's innings victory over PNG in the Intercontinental Cup last week. Hong Kong's spin duo of Nadeem Ahmed and Ehsan Khan took 17 of the 20 wickets in the I-Cup win at Sharjah and though conditions won't be as dry at the ICC Academy, Hong Kong should still be considered favorites on recent form.
Scotland v Kenya - Dubai International Stadium
Like the I-Cup, no team has perhaps been more adversely affected by weather in this competition than Scotland. They were in a very strong position against Netherlands at Amstelveen in the summer of 2015 when three-and-a-half days of rain resulted in a pair of splits. Another match in Hong Kong was also washed out. But in a year in which they scored wins over Zimbabwe in an ODI and Sri Lanka in an unofficial Champions Trophy warm-up, they shot themselves in the foot twice with losses to Namibia and PNG. So rather than being one point in front of Netherlands, they are three behind.
In order for Scotland to finish first, they need two wins over Kenya, need Netherlands to lose both games to Namibia and at least one Hong Kong victory against PNG. At the very least, one win will guarantee them a spot in the Qualifier. However, two losses could see them calamitously drop back to Division Two: Kenya would have jumped past them and Hong Kong could overtake them with a win. Captain Kyle Coetzer was a batting juggernaut over the summer with centuries against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Namibia. More runs from him are practically a given in these games.
Kenya are currently in fifth place, two points behind Hong Kong for fourth place and six points behind Netherlands for first. They have no shot at the title but are desperate to not go back to Division Two for a second crack at claiming a spot in the Qualifier. As captain Rakep Patel told ESPNcricinfo on the eve of the final round, they are treating these games as "do or die."
Two wins would take them past Scotland and clinch a spot at the Qualifier. However, they can still make the Qualifier with just one win if Hong Kong lose twice to PNG. Spinner Shem Ngoche could be a major factor with the ball as the spinner is currently the fifth-highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 18 wickets, but more than likely it will take a few big innings from Alex Obanda or Collins Obuya for Kenya to get past Scotland.
Both teams have been eliminated from contention for the guaranteed spots at the World Cup Qualifier that go to the top four finishers. UAE are tied for last with six points while Nepal are in sixth place with nine points, five behind Hong Kong at the fourth place cut-off. For both sides, it's an opportunity for key match practice while building up for their second crack at making the qualifier via Division Two in February where they'll be joined by Namibia, Canada, Oman and whoever is the lowest placed team out of Hong Kong, Kenya or Scotland when the round ends.
UAE showed promise by stretching Afghanistan into a fourth day in their I-Cup match. Chirag Suri has grown immensely since his time with the Gujarat Lions squad in the IPL and forms a solid opening tandem with captain Rohan Mustafa.
Nepal split a pair of 50-over games with Kenya and USA in Abu Dhabi in the lead-up to the final round. In a story that has seemingly never changed in a decade, their batting was badly exposed in a loss to USA with captain Paras Khadka and vice-captain Gyanendra Malla resting. Dipendra Singh Airee showed some promise with his innings against Kenya though and if he can play a good support role with Sharad Vesawkar, Nepal may be able to collect a win or two to build confidence heading into Division Two in Namibia.