Challenge League Play-off Long Read: Eight-team tournament to decide Challenge League line-up for next Cricket World Cup cycle

Eight teams battle for the final four spots in the Challenge League system as part of the Cricket World Cup 2027 pathway.

Virandeep Singh in action for Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur: The final four spots to complete the line-up of teams in the pathway system for the Men’s Cricket World Cup 2027 are up for grabs in Malaysia over the next two weeks, via the eight-team Cricket World Cup Challenge League Play-off.

The tournament pits the bottom two finishers of both Challenge League Groups A and B from 2019-2023, and the next-best four teams who sat outside the 50-over pathway system, adjudged by their ICC Men’s T20I team rankings while fulfilling domestic 40+ over requirements.

The teams will be split into two groups of four, with the top three in each group moving to a Super Six phase, where points accrued against other progressing teams will carry over. Teams will play the three progressing teams from the opposite group, with the top four teams on the points tally moving into the Challenge League system.

Group A: Bermuda, Italy, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia

Group B: Bahrain, Malaysia, Tanzania, Vanuatu

Team by Team Guide

Bermuda

Winless and limping in last in Challenge League B, struggling to find opponents geographically and coming off their winter, the Bermudians come into a hot and muggy tournament shivering cold.

Chances of regaining their Challenge League spot seemed even bleaker when star Kamau Leverock looked to be unavailable, though a change of heart, and perhaps a word from recently-elected Bermuda Cricket Board President Lloyd Smith, changed the outspoken all-rounder’s mind.

“Kamau had made himself unavailable, but that was before I was president,” Smith professed, telling the Royal Gazette.

“I reached out to him to discuss his availability and, along with the selection committee, we’ve got to a situation where he is available again and that’s a big plus.”

Leverock’s output alongside returning County pro Delray Rawlins will likely dictate Bermuda’s campaign, though the nature of the Play-off beast suggests more needs to come from those around them.

Tre Manders was an asset when available, making 196 runs at 39.2 in five knocks in the Challenge League cycle. With the ball, Zeko Burgess is one to potentially step up.

Cal Waldron takes on the coaching reins on a temporary basis, with former coach Niraj Odedra, on Indian domestic duty with Saurashtra, likely only to return if their take a Challenge League spot.

Italy

Only bettering Bermuda in Challenge League B, Italy are a better team than their 11-point, five-win campaign would suggest, but also come into the tournament in their off-season, outside of players based in Australia.

Captain/coach Gareth Berg’s performance in Malaysia will no doubt go a long way in Italy looking to keep hold of their Challenge League rights, with the 43-year-old quick taking the most wickets across both groups in last cycle (34 at 13.85).

Wayne Madsen’s inclusion is a boon for the Italians, with the likes of Australian-based batter Anthony Mosca and Marcus Campopiano available after missing chunks of the Challenge League campaign. The pair averaged 55 and 48 respectively in their five innings during the cycle.

The side have built up with a training camp in Malaysia, culminating in a warm-up win over Kuwait on Tuesday. Helping Berg on the coaching side is Ireland legend Kevin O’Brien.

Malaysia

Firing on all fronts in recent 50-over cricket and in their own backyard, Malaysia are the tournament favourites until another team can prove otherwise.

Winning a recent tri-series including Canada and Hong Kong, teams already locked into League 2 and Challenge League respectively, Malaysia only went on and hammered their case for favouritism further by beating Hong Kong in a bilateral series straight after.

A man who came under consideration for 2023 ICC Associate Men’s Cricket of the Year, Virandeep Singh continues to shine with bat and ball and should be in the discussion for Player of the Tournament honours.

Likely to open the batting with Virandeep is left-hand fan favourite Syed Aziz, a joy to watch once he puts his foot down in the shorter format, but looking to find form in the 50-over format.

The Malaysians have a number of pace options, with Aziz occasionally opening the bowling with Syazrul Idrus. Sharvin Muniandy should also feature prominently.

With no weak link and in familiar conditions, it would be a shock if Malaysia were to not regain their Challenge League privileges.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have made their mark in recent ACC regional events, winning the recent Challenger Cup and qualifying for the upcoming Premier Cup on the T20I side of things, though the side are raw in terms of 50-over experience, and face a tougher field at the Challenge League Play-off.

The test of depth that comes with longer format cricket will be the Saudi’s biggest challenge, with multiple opponents from their recent T20I commitments commenting on the side’s top-heavy make-up, in particular with the bat. Responsibility is squared on Faisal Khan and Abdul Waheed’s shoulders, and to a lesser extent Hisham Shaikh, also pivotal to his side’s chances with his finger spin.

Ishtiaq Ahmad and Usman Najib are two seam options for the Saudis to boast decent T20I records.

Two or three barnstorming individual efforts could put the side in the mix for a Challenge League spot, though it’d likely take the emergence of new heroes to stand up in order for the side to have a strong campaign collectively.

Vanuatu

Finishing last in Challenge League A, Vanuatu struggled to find a rhythm in the last cycle, though did show their credentials with two wins against Malaysia and a 21-run win over Singapore.

The squad is comprised of a rough split of those who reside in Vanuatu and a portion based in Northern Australia for seasonal work, turning out in local club cricket in Queensland and training through a strategic partnership with IComply Labour and Agricultural Compliance.

Team members met together for a final training hit-out in Sydney, reaching Malaysia two days ahead of the tournament.

All-rounder Nalin Nipiko is the key man for Vanuatu, though with the bat the team should enjoy the longer white-ball format after struggles in the T20I format. Extra time in the middle should benefit Santo product Junior Kaltapau, while Patrick Matautaava should feel freer without the captaincy, now taken by all-rounder Josh Rasu.

The team are not short of bowlers, though it is arguably their spin where their strength lies, and they could bowl up to 40 overs of it if conditions suit. Captain Rasu’s off-spin could be utilised as a Powerplay option, with off-spinner Simpson Obed and the quick leg-breaks of Williamsing Nalisa deployed through the middle.

The side also welcome Vanuatu Cricket Association CEO and co-founder of this masthead Tim Cutler into the squad after meeting qualification requirements. The left-arm orthodox spinner who will chip in with runs at the bottom of the order was a key performer for Hong Kong Cricket Club during his time as CEO there in the mid-2010s, and turned out for Easts in Sydney Premier Cricket, debuting for the first XI there almost 23 years ago.

Facing favourites Malaysia last in the group stage, the Ni-Van men know they must hit the ground running against Bahrain and be at their best against Tanzania to shore up their Super Six spot.

Tanzania

Turning out in a region heaving with international cricket, the Tanzanians are not short of match practice, underlined by a recent five-match one-day series against Kenya.

The team claimed the two dead rubber matches after going down 3-0 down in the series, and also boast a T20I victory over T20 World Cup qualifiers Uganda, beating them in a final-ball thriller in the East Asia Cup.

In comparison to the other budding teams looking to move into the Challenge League system the Tanzanians share the workload around the team, led by skipper Abhik Patwa. Ivan Selemani is a solid operator capable of big hitting later down the order, while Yalinde Nkanya is the team’s leding wicket taker in official men’s T20Is.

In the squad is another exciting prospect left-arm orthodox spinner Laksh Bakrania, a consistent performer during their lead-in series. Bakrania made headlines in Africa U19 World Cup qualifying back in 2021, when he tore a more-favoured Namibian side apart three days after celebrating his 14th birthday, taking figures of 5/28 in a victory, defending 200.

To give an indication of his age difference to potential opposite number Cutler when Tanzania meet Vanuatu, Bakrania was born on the sixth anniversary of Cutler’s Sydney first grade debut, 29 September 2007.

Laksh Bakrania Africa Qualifier Tanzania
Bakrania as a 14-year-old during U19 World Cup Qualification in 2021.

Tanzania’s lack of 50-over experience may hinder their chances, though the depth of the squad hints at a decent tilt for a top four spot.

Bahrain

Showing glimpses of their 50-over capabilities at the ACC Premier Cup last year in Nepal, Bahrain boast a colossal 132-run win over Singapore, and were only outplayed once in the tournament in a heavy defeat to UAE.

Sohail Ahmed and Fiaz Ahmed hold the batting order together through the middle, and the side have options at the death to lift the run rate.

Quick bowler Rizwan Butt’s flowing action demands attention, with Imran Javen Anwar’s left-armers action and delivery point keeping all forms of dismissals in play. The pair could well be pivotal with the new ball, while Imran’s late hitting could also push Bahrain’s case, underlined by a 53 (19) effort against Kuwait at the Premier Cup.

Bahrain’s first match against Vanuatu is a crunch match for both team’s given Malaysia’s red-hot form leading into the tournament.

Kuwait

Boasting a victory against Hong Kong at the ACC Premier Cup last year, Kuwait have the pedigree and individual talent to move into a Challenge League spot.

The Kuwaitis boast multiple spinners who bring in different elements and angles to each other to make life difficult. The bespectacled Yasin Patel is a tall left-arm orthodox spinner who challenges both edges with the bat, while captain Mohammed Aslam’s lower release point is a challenge particularly for the right-handers. Leg-spinner Shiraz Khan will also ask questions moving into his spell.

Aslam’s output with the bat will be important in Kuwait’s push, as well as hard hitter Adnan Idrees.

The side have built into the tournament with a training camp in Malaysia, losing to Italy in a Tuesday warm-up fixture.

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