Valentine's Day 2018. It was an occasion when the hearts of some cricketers in Windhoek were made full (Nepal and UAE) or left completely broken (Canada and Namibia) on the last day of round-robin play at the previous edition of the World Cricket League Division Two. For Canada and Namibia, it's been an agonising 14-month wait for the eight days of cricket action to come.
This year's tournament - also in Windhoek - is at once a sad and happy occasion; the World Cricket League ends after this event but those who finish in the top four of six competing teams have a shot at ODI status.
For Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea, it's a chance to resurrect the ODI status that died in Zimbabwe at last year's World Cup Qualifier. For Canada and Namibia, it's a chance to piece themselves back together from the heartbreak of 14 months ago, especially for Canada, who will try to regain ODI status for the first time since 2014. For USA, it's a chance to complete their resurrection and to get back into the top tier of Associate cricket since playing their only ODIs at the 2004 Champions Trophy. For Oman, it's an opportunity to ascend to a height they've never experienced in one-day cricket before.
Papua New Guinea (9th place at 2018 World Cup Qualifier)
After being in first place in the 2015-17 WCL Championship through the end of the first four rounds, PNG stumbled in the final three rounds to win just two of their last six matches and finish six points behind eventual champions Netherlands. At the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe three months later, five straight losses ensured they relinquished ODI status.
An unstable management structure didn't help the on-field performance. Long-time coach Dipak Patel was dumped in the summer of 2017, followed by a very brief tenure for Jason Gillespie, before Joe Dawes took over on an interim basis at the end of the year leading into the World Cup Qualifier. Dawes has taken over full-time now, giving him an opportunity to find an elusive winning combination.
Since the World Cup Qualifier, PNG's only official international cricket has been in two regional rounds of 2020 T20 World Cup Qualifier. Opening batsman Tony Ura has been the leading scorer during that stretch against watered-down competition, scoring at 458 runs at 65.43 including two centuries. Far more impressive was his 151 against Ireland in Zimbabwe, but as the rest of PNG's scorecard from that match shows, too often, Ura has lacked support. PNG's batsmen need to be far more consistent in Namibia to reclaim ODI status.
Hong Kong (10th place at 2018 World Cup Qualifier)
In January 2017, Hong Kong very narrowly lost a pair of one-dayers in the WCL Championship to Netherlands by margins of five runs and 13 runs. Had either of those matches gone Hong Kong's way, they would have finished at the top of the table, securing ODI status through 2022 and a place in the 13-team ODI Super League. Instead they went to Zimbabwe where - despite a win over eventual World Cup qualifier Afghanistan - they struggled through the rest of the group stage and loser's bracket playoffs to finish last.
Hong Kong showcased their mercurial resilience by not only qualifying ahead of UAE and Nepal for the Asia Cup six months later, but in giving India a huge scare. Yet another blow came in October when brothers Irfan and Nadeem Ahmed along with Haseeb Amjad were all suspended indefinitely after being charged by the ICC with breaching the anti-corruption code.
Nizakat Khan, whose 92 opening the chase against India was one of the top five innings by an Associate player in 2018, will miss the tournament in Namibia while on compassionate leave, spending time with his ill father in Pakistan. It means captain Anshuman Rath and ex-captain Babar Hayat will be under heavy pressure to prop up a paper-thin batting order.
Canada (3rd place at 2018 WCL Division Two)
After going 3-0 to start the tournament, Canada were in control of their destiny heading into the final two days of round-robin play. They ran out of steam chasing 268 and lost by 17 runs to Namibia, and, on the final day of the round-robin stage, still had a World Cup Qualifier berth in their grasp, needing one more wicket against Nepal. Karan KC and Sandeep Lamichhane famously denied them with a 51-run last-wicket stand to win off the final ball.
Canada return with the majority of that squad, but have added reinforcements in a few key areas. Davy Jacobs, the former Warriors captain from South Africa who spent two years with Mumbai Indians, has gone from coaching Canada in 2016 [a year after he moved to Ontario] to now captaining his adopted home, after qualifying to play under the ICC's residency criteria. In his debut tournament, he finished second on the team's aggregate and averages during the Cricket West Indies Super50 in October.
On the bowling side, their pace department has gotten a boost in the form of Romesh Eranga. Despite playing only six matches in Canada's group-stage participation in the Super50, the left-arm swing bowler topped the tournament wickets list with 17, including two five-fors. Along with Cecil Pervez, he forms a potent new-ball combo that makes Canada one of the tournament favourites.
Namibia (4th place at 2018 WCL Division Two)
The dramatic nature of Canada's heartbreak against Nepal relegated Namibia's 19-run loss to UAE - when they needed 28 off the last 15 balls with a batsman well-set on 58 - to a footnote in the tournament saga. But the repercussions were no less drastic. Captain Sarel Burger retired while Gerrie Snyman, who was not a part of the squad but was a devastating presence when available, also called time on his career.
The reins have subsequently been handed to 24-year-old Gerhard Erasmus, who showed tremendous maturity in the tournament under immense pressure in a win against Oman, as well as a fifty in a win over Canada. He also struck a half-century in the loss to UAE, where his wicket effectively clinched the match for the opposition. Had Namibia gotten over the line against UAE, Erasmus likely would have presented a strong case for Player of the Tournament instead of Sandeep Lamichhane.
Namibia have shown flashes of being worthy of Division One Associate status. Despite finishing last out of eight teams in the 2015-17 WCL Championship, one of their three wins came against second-placed Scotland in Edinburgh. On that day, Christi Viljoen's presence was immense in a cameo return during the Otago offseason. With Viljoen named in their 14-man squad, Namibia have every chance to contend for the top four.
Oman (1st place at 2018 WCL Division Three)
Arguably the team with the most topsy-turvy ride at last year's Division Two in Windhoek was Oman. Blown out on a damp wicket on the opening day by Canada, they came back the next day to hand Nepal their only loss of the round-robin stage. They had Namibia 65 for 7 chasing 166 before letting them off the hook. In a de facto semi-final against UAE on day four of the round-robin stage, they needed less than three per over with seven wickets in hand chasing 159 before the chase went pear-shaped, sparked by a needless run-out. They were relegated after ending 2-3, yet they easily could have gone 4-1 and qualified for Zimbabwe alongside Nepal.
Chastened by some of the harsh lessons from that experience, they went undefeated on home soil in November to earn a trip back to Namibia. More impressive have been some of their recent results against the current top-class of Associates. After being wiped out for 24 in a record mauling by Scotland in February, they produced a stunning turnaround 24 hours later to win by 93 runs, before a spirited chase that ended with a 15-run loss in the series decider.
Those results against Scotland came without arguably their two best batsmen, captain Zeeshan Maqsood and Aqib Ilyas who both sat out injured. With them, they chased 252 to beat UAE by two wickets at the start of April and were in position to win again with 36 needed off 11 overs before a late stumble in a 14-run loss. Their batting depth has increased dramatically in recent years and with a pace battery spearheaded by Bilal Khan, the joint-leading wicket-taker with Lamichhane in Windhoek last year, Oman are poised to take a top-four spot.
USA (Runner-up at 2018 WCL Division Three)
On their fifth attempt, USA finally got over the Division Three hump in Oman. Last month's tour of the UAE showed that despite entering Namibia as the lowest-ranked team in the event, USA have transformed into a well-oiled machine to earn a tag as one of the tournament favorites. A comfortable six-wicket win over a Lancashire side that featured the England duo of Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed was followed by wins in two of three one-dayers over the UAE senior side, that too in dominant fashion by five wickets and nine wickets.
Perhaps the most salient point about the first two victories in that run were that they were achieved without Trinbago Knight Riders spearhead Ali Khan, who sat out with back spasms. A spicy 3 for 29 in the final encounter played a major role in USA only having to chase 143 in the series clincher against a country with ODI status for the last five years.
USA's batting, which was historically brittle in high-pressure situations, suddenly turned rock-solid in Oman with the middle-order addition of Aaron Jones and Hayden Walsh Jr. Factor in Xavier Marshall's sizzling re-entry to the top of the order in the UAE, where he was the leading scorer on tour, along with Steven Taylor's dynamic all-round assets and it's hard to imagine USA leaving Namibia without ODI status under their belt.