Can Universe Boss revive Windies?
The West Indies are facing the ignominy of failing to qualify, despite being one of only three teams to have won the World Cup on multiple occasions. The Caribbean outfit have slipped out of the top eight in the ODI rankings after a poor run of form and the loss of several key players to T20 franchise leagues, with the likes of Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine and Darren Bravo all unavailable.
But star batsman and self-styled 'Universe Boss' Chris Gayle is back and ready to try and add to his tally of 22 ODI hundreds. The big-hitting left-hander and Windies teammate Marlon Samuels turned down the allure of the lucrative Pakistan Super League in order to play in Zimbabwe, and all eyes will be on the 38-year-old as he tries to reach his fifth World Cup.
The million-dollar leg-spinner
Afghanistan's incredible rise has continued to gain momentum over the last 12 months, led by teenage leg-spin sensation Rashid Khan. The 19-year-old will captain the team for the early part of qualifying in place of the injured Asghar Stanikzai and is closing in on becoming the fastest-ever bowler to reach 100 ODI wickets.
Rashid, who was bought by Sunrisers Hyderabad for $1.41 million in last month's IPL auction, has taken 86 wickets in 37 ODIs. Mitchell Starc's record of taking only 52 matches to reach 100 wickets is in danger of falling over in the next few weeks in a torrent of fizzing leg-breaks and googlies.
Host country Zimbabwe, who have played in every World Cup since 1983, have fallen from grace over the last 15 years and are seen as underdogs to qualify. They have only won three matches at the last three World Cups, against the UAE, Canada and Kenya, and were comprehensively beaten 4-1 in a one-day series by Afghanistan last month.
Their hopes will be pinned on the recently-returned Brendan Taylor, Kyle Jarvis and Sean Williams, but an embarrassing loss to one of the game's lesser lights is perhaps more likely than qualification.
Nepal scraped into the qualifying tournament after a series of thrilling victories in the World Cricket League Division Two, culminating in a last-ball, one-wicket win over Canada to book their spot in Zimbabwe. They had also edged to an earlier triumph over Namibia with the last pair at the crease in the final over.
Led by 17-year-old leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane, Nepal will be fun to watch in the qualifiers, but any victories will probably result in some frayed nerves back home for their cricket-mad supporters.
Battle for ODI status
The first group stage may seem to just be a precursor before the stronger sides battle it out for a World Cup place in the following Super Six round, but there are three slots as an ODI nation up for grabs. The top three Associate teams – Ireland, Afghanistan, West Indies and Zimbabwe are full ICC members – will join World Cricket League Championship winners the Netherlands in gaining ODI status until 2022.
As a result, outsiders Nepal, the UAE, Hong Kong, Scotland and Papua New Guinea have plenty on the line in the opening two weeks.