Thailand’s debut at the T20 World Cup against the West Indies at the WACA was due to start at 3pm local time. The players had a free morning. I recall trying to place myself in the players’ shoes. How would they respond to the magnitude of the situation? Would the Thailand players be able to harness the limelight to execute their well-laid plans?
As I jogged along the southern bank of the Swan River that morning, the WACA looking like citadel across the water, I recounted some of the steps Thailand had taken to get to this very place: a World Cup debut.
The last-over win against China at the 2019 sub-regional qualifier in Bangkok; the 2-run win over Ireland at the global qualifier in Dundee; the warm-up game against New Zealand in which Chanida Sutthiruang smashed a run-a-ball 36 against one of the best attacks in the world.
“They can compete”, I told myself.
Everybody felt the sense of occasion. The trip to the ground was unnaturally quiet. The players were out on the field not long after we arrived. The avalanche of pre-match administrative tasks – submitting team lists, setting up the video analysis software, preparing for pre-match interviews, instructing the players on when and in what order to line up for the national anthems – calmed the nerves. In the fleeting moments between, there was nervous laughter, and the odd comment about how surreal it was to see the Thai flag at the WACA for the first, and hopefully, not last time.
Of course, Thailand more than belonged on the field. The players knew and expressed it time and time again. For example, when it became clear that the warm up game against Bangladesh would be cancelled because of a wet outfield, one senior player lamented, very seriously I might add, the fact that Thailand would now not have the opportunity to beat Bangladesh until the next World Cup. “They may be at the next qualifiers, but we’ll qualify automatically,” she said.
The game against the West Indies was the one that got away. Thailand’s batting was below par on a good WACA deck. But it was a pulsating display in the field. Chanida Sutthiruang had Shemaine Campbelle LBW to leave the Windies at 4-27 chasing 78, before DRS overturned the decision. Earlier, Naruemol Chaiwai and Suleeporn Laomi effected quick gather and throw run-outs of the highest quality.
It was the kind of performance that had journalists in the press box chatting excitedly about the prospect of a future upset. One even asked me, perhaps incredulously, where and how Thailand had learnt to field at such a level.
Emerging Cricket’s Nick Skinner put it best later in the tournament when he said, “fielding is an equalizer of sorts in international cricket. What Associates may lack in batting quality or bowling acumen at the international Full-Member level, they make up in athleticism and fielding skill.” Indeed, Associates know that they do not necessarily have the resources or exposure to compete with teams like Australia in the batting and bowling departments, so ensure their fielding is immaculate.
Throughout the tournament, Thailand showed courage, and skill with the ball and bat, indicating that they could compete at this level. 19-year old Nannapat Khoncharoenkrai repeatedly punched the ball down to long on and long off in her 33-run knock against the West Indies, demonstrating sound technique and discipline as the anchor of the innings.
Nattaya Boochatham and Suleeporn Laomi bowled with guile and tenacity against some of the best batters in the world. Boochatham’s opening spell against England was a highlight. Twice in the first two balls, she beat Amy Jones with drift and dip, stumping Jones with the second. Laomi operated against Nat Sciver, Heather Knight, Lizelle Lee and Sunette Luus when all four were set on flat decks and trying to hit big.
The leg-spinner varied her speed, length, and deliveries repeatedly ensuring that none of the four could really get her away. Thailand’s Head Coach, Harshal Pathak believes she is one of the best in the world.
Onnicha Kampchomphu came to the crease at 4-15 in the sixth over with Thailand chasing 3-195 against South Africa. In the next five overs, Thailand scored 29 runs without losing a wicket. Kampchomphu scored 26 of them with three classy boundaries and a towering slog sweep for six off Dane van Niekerk. It was an almost irreverent counter-attack, and the first example of an unshackled Thai batting performance.
“To put their progress into perspective, Thailand’s first T20I (with status) was against Pakistan in June 2018, at the Women’s Asia Cup. There, they finished with a scored of just 67-8 from their 20 overs. Today, they finished with a total of 150-3, and provided a case and point for giving Associate Members more opportunity at the highest level of the game.”
What was remarkable about this innings was the way in which Thailand toyed with the Pakistani bowlers and their field placements for the whole innings. One particular sequence of deliveries exemplified the intelligent dominance of the display.
In the ninth over, leg-spinner Arooba Shah threw up a loopy delivery wide of off-stump. The left-hander Boochatham lifted the ball over cover for four. Skipper Javeria Khan immediately replaced the leg-side fielder at deep square leg with an off-side sweeper at deep cover. Shah bowled the next one flatter, outside off stump on a good length. Boochatham, having eyed the fielding change, stretched across her stump and timed a slog-sweep over square leg for four.
Not only did Boochatham execute two very difficult shots, she forced the Pakistani captain to change her field and then exploited the resultant gap to perfection. It was a period of batting that blended precise placing, technique, and tactical nous at the highest level of the game.
Of course, these moments of quality came amidst many in which Thailand were shorn up as short. But they proved that the players believed in themselves and could execute, especially in situations where they had conditioned their minds to compete.
As I wrote before the Pakistan game:
“the players and coaching staff alike are motivated. They want to beat Pakistan. This was always the match they targeted. They are preparing hard, as usual. They would not have got here without this relentless drive…”
…We pick up a number of useful pointers about the Pakistanis [watching their game against South Africa] – their bowlers and key fielding placements, and who their key batters are. Our players know that Pakistan do not have a power game, like South Africa or England. They also know that they have nothing to lose. Hopefully this will translate into carefree, positive cricket.”
Smiles and antics belied the disappointment during the innings break against Pakistan. Everyone knew the win was theirs for the taking, and what it would mean to record such a win.
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