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Of the six teams in Group A in next week’s ICC European Division 2 Championship in Corfu, only four played in the equivalent tournament in Belgium last season, Israel having been relegated from Division 1 and Estonia having won the Division 3 event in Tallinn earlier this year are the new introductions.
Israel, led by Herschel Gutman, will be keen to return as quickly as possible to the top flight, and they will bring a strong, experienced side to Corfu. There are recalls for Raymond Aston and Gabi Schachat and new faces in South African-born Gerrit Grundling and Sri Lankan Kapila Perere. The squad does not, however, include their leading wicket-taker from Division 1 last season, Eliezer Samson, who has been named among the reserves.
Portugal, who finished a creditable fourth in Belgium last year, will again be captained by Mozambique-born Akbar Saiyad. They, too, bring plenty of experience to the tournament, but they will also have one of the younger players in 18-year-old Bilal Safdar. Their chances of success may depend on the form of Zafar Ali, who achieved a strike rate of 197.10 in last year’s competition.
The draw puts Portugal in the same group as their neighbours Spain, whose fifth place last time can in part be attributed to the fact that then they were in a distinctly stronger group. Mark Spencer takes over the captaincy, while they will again be looking to James Morgan among the batsmen, one of the outstanding performers in Belgium with 244 runs at an average of 34.86. Newcomers in the Spanish squad are Nisar Ahmed, Tariq Ali Awan and Mohammad Yasin, all Pakistan-born but seven-year residents in their adopted country.
Tony Whiteman assumes the captaincy of a Luxembourg side which will be keen to improve on their eighth place last season. They will feature a father-and-son combination in Graham and William Cope, the latter being the baby of the tournament at 15. Luxembourg also include another locally-born teenager in 18-year-old Christopher Evans, but there is plenty of experience elsewhere in the squad and they will be hoping to cause some surprises along the way.
Malta, who finished one place behind Luxembourg in 2011, are also under a new skipper, in the person of Andrew Naudi, their leading wicket-taker in Belgium with 14 wickets at 13.36.
John Callus and Frankie Spiteri, both of whom missed the Belgian tournament, return to the squad, while the younger brigade is represented by 17-year-old George Agius.
The unknown quantity in the group, and indeed in the tournament as a whole, will be Estonia, who were convincing winners of the Division 3 tournament back in June. Tim Heath whom retains the captaincy is still likely to be a mainstay of the batting with his hard hitting. But Estonia’s trump card may prove to be Murali Obili, who topped the wicket-takers in Tallinn with 9 at 8.67 and also contributed valuable runs, while spinner Moshiur Rahman also causes problems for opponents.
Group B promises to be a hard-fought competition heading the list of six teams is Croatia, relegated from Division 1 last year and certain to mount a strong challenge to regain their place. With John Vujnovich again leading the side there is plenty of experience in the squad, but an encouraging sign is the presence of a quartet of Croatian-born youngsters.
They are 20-year-old Ivan Pažanin, 19-year-old Istok Dordevic, and two 17-year-olds, Josip Jukic and Damir Svilicic. Another newcomer is Peter Mackelworth, while the more familiar faces include Craig Sinovich and Jasen Butkovic.
Third in Belgium a year ago, the Isle of Man will be keen to go one better this time and gain promotion to next season’s Division 1 tournament. Their squad includes several new names, including Philip Littlejohns, Russell Miller and Mark Williams, while Alex Stokoe also joins elder brother Max in the full side.
One of their key players will no doubt again be batsman Gareth Morris, whose 289 runs in Belgium, at an average of 57.80, included a punishing unbeaten 141 against Cyprus. That was the only century of the tournament, although Morris narrowly missed another with 95 against Luxembourg.
Contending with Croatia and the Isle of Man for a semi-final place are likely to be hosts Hellas, who finished sixth last year but will be determined to make the most of their home advantage. A good deal of attention will inevitably centre on their new captain, former Hampshire batsman Nic Pothas, who also played three ODIs for his native South Africa.
He will lead a side which includes such seasoned campaigners as Mehmood Ahmed, Spyridon Goustis and Dimitrios Triantafillidis, while the new faces include 16-year-old Ioannis Vasilas.
Finland finished one place behind Hellas last season and they, too, bring a squad which retains many of their established players, with Amrik Bhatia taking over the captaincy from Jonathan Scamans.
No fewer than five members of the side are drawn from Finland’s Afghan community, with Karimullah Malekzaei joining Zahidullah Kamal, Ehhpelwak Kuchey, Obaidullah Sadiqui and Roholah Sadiqui in the squad. Another newcomer, on the other hand, is Finnish-born Tatu Vehvilainen, who makes his first appearance in the full side.
The remaining Group B sides are Cyprus and Sweden, who finished tenth and eleventh last season and may find it tough to do significantly better this time.
Cyprus retain ten of their 2011 squad, with the side again led by Michalis Kyriacou. Kyricacou and Nimal Durayalage were their most successful batsmen in Belgium, but Yasir Nazir, the Cypriots’ most economical bowler in that tournament, is among the reserves for the Corfu event.
Sweden, by contrast, are ringing the changes, with only four of the squad from Belgium included this season. Serge Conein, who helped them win promotion from Division 3 but then missed the Division 2 tournament, returns to the side, and the other survivors are Azam Khalil, Sunny Sharma, Sadat Sidiqi and Chris Tebbutt. They, too, will have a strong Afghan-born presence, with Aman Momand, Abdul Jalali Wakil and Khalid Ahmad Zahid joining Khalil and Sidiqi in the squad.
ICC said that all in all, the tournament promises plenty of action, and one can be confident that whoever gains promotion to Division 1 will have thoroughly earned it.
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