March 28-31, 2017
Start time 1000 local (0430 GMT)
When the Intercontinental Cup was initiated by the ICC as part of their global development programme, the concept of an Associate using the competition as a vehicle to vie for Test status was a pipe dream. Thirteen years on, it's a prospect both Afghanistan and Ireland are faced with; the winner of the current Intercontinental Cup edition will take another step closer to cricket's ultimate dream.
Much discussion recently have pegged a double bump up for both sides, but that will depend on ICC's reforms being approved, a long-drawn process if history is any indication. For now, only the champion of the Intercontinental Cup will advance to the 2018 Test Challenge, a four-match series against the bottom-ranked Test side, currently Zimbabwe.
As such, the stakes remain high in the four-day showdown in Greater Noida, particularly since the format has undergone a slight tweak. Unlike previously where the top two sides met in a final at a neutral venue, the group topper after seven rounds will be declared the winner this time around. Therefore, it's fair to say this clash will have plenty riding on it, perhaps more than any of the six previous finals have.
If Afghanistan claim full points, they will sneak past Ireland by a point. Their final two games are against Hong Kong and UAE, currently placed last. An Ireland loss would mean they'd be in an uphill battle to surge past Afghanistan since they arguably have the toughest remaining slate of any team in the competition - against Netherlands and Scotland.
Though currently second and 19 points behind Ireland, momentum is on Afghanistan's side. A thumping 10-wicket demolition of Ireland in the final of the Desert T20 Challenge has been followed by a 3-0 T20I sweep and a 3-2 ODI series win this month over the same opponent. In between the Desert T20 and hosting Ireland, they had another 3-2 ODI series win over Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe.
Ireland, who have won four of the last five Intercontinental Cups, have been consistent in the tournament at least. This time around, they have stormed not only to four wins in four matches, but have also claimed full points including a pair of win by innings margins. All set them for a cracker.
Afghanistan LDWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Rashid Khan has never taken the field for Afghanistan in the I-Cup. However, he took 12 for 122 on his first-class debut against England Lions in December to dispel any doubts over his capabilities in long-form cricket. Rashid was the leading wicket-taker in both the T20I and ODI series ahead of this with nine and 16 respectively across eight matches.
Ireland's Ed Joyce is the leading scorer in the competition with 592 runs in six innings. The bulk of that output came in a pair of double-century knocks against UAE and Namibia in June and October 2015. He kept up that form in limited-overs cricket against Afghanistan in the summer of 2016, finishing as the leading scorer in the home four-ODI series with 339 runs. However, he's had a much leaner run since arriving in Greater Noida, making just 137 runs in five ODIs.
Zahir Khan, the left-arm wristspinner who is tied with George Dockrell for most wickets in the tournament, is one of several expected changes from the limited-overs leg as Afghanistan may produce a three-pronged spin attack: Zahir, Rashid and Mohammad Nabi.
Afghanistan (probableXI): 1 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 2 Javed Ahmadi, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Nasir Jamal, 5 Asghar Stanikzai (capt.), 6 Hashmatullah Shahidi, 7 Mohammad Nabi, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Dawlat Zadran, 10 Yamin Ahmadzai, 11 Zahir Khan
Ireland's lack of depth will be further tested by the absence of Kevin O'Brien, who flew home after suffering a hamstring injury in the fourth ODI. Boyd Rankin missed the T20I and ODI series with a back problem he has battled since the Desert T20 in January. If Rankin can't go, Ireland may opt for offspinning allrounder Andy McBrine rather than specialist legspinner Jacob Mulder or medium pacer Peter Chase. That would leave Tim Murtagh and Craig Young as the two seam options.
Ireland (probable XI): 1 William Porterfield (capt.), 2 Paul Stirling, 3 Ed Joyce, 4 John Anderson, 5 Niall O'Brien (wk), 6 Andy Balbirnie, 7 Gary Wilson, 8 Andy McBrine/Jacob Mulder, 9 George Dockrell, 10 Tim Murtagh, 11 Craig Young/Boyd Rankin
Pitch and conditions
Afghanistan's spinners took 16 of the 20 wickets in an innings and 36 run win over Namibia in the only I-Cup game at this venue. Spinners dominated throughout the just completed ODI series, highlighted by Rashid and Paul Stirling taking 6-fors in the same match. Slow bowlers are expected to continue prospering. Fitness levels will be tested with temperatures expected to hover around 40 degrees.
Stats and trivia
Ireland captain William Porterfield needs 47 runs to pass Andrew White as his country's all-time leading scorer in the I-Cup. Porterfield has 1506 runs in 21 matches, which puts him seventh overall behind Kenya's Steve Tikolo (1918 runs).
Ed Joyce needs 84 runs to reach 1000 runs in the Intercontinental Cup. He'd be the second-fastest to the mark if he gets there. Ryan ten Doeschate took just seven matches to cross 1000 I-Cup runs for the Netherlands.
Mohammad Nabi needs three more wickets to surpass Hamid Hassan for the most by an Afghanistan bowler in the I-Cup. Nabi has 53 in 17 games. Three wickets will also take him into 10th position for most wickets by a bowler in the tournament's history. Former Ireland captain Trent Johnston is number one with 91 wickets in 25 matches.
"I feel this will be the best and most important game in the entire Intercontinental Cup league as both teams can top the league. Our strength is spin bowling and most of our batsmen are in good form. It's a matter of performing well on the day."
Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai
"It will be a big test for us - the conditions, the turning surface against a side that has a lot of spinners. We've been here for three or four weeks, played a lot of cricket on the same ground, so we could not have asked for better preparation."
Ireland captain William Porterfield