The Scotland Breakthrough

Chris Greaves, Bangladesh vs Scotland
Scotland's Chris Greaves (2R) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of Bangladesh's Mushfiqur Rahim (not pictured) during the ICC Mens Twenty20 World Cup cricket match between Bangladesh and Scotland at the Oman Cricket Academy Ground in Muscat on October 17, 2021. (Photo: ICC via Getty Images)

“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye”, or so Scottish boomers like to tell you.

In times of strife or uncertainty, this is their go-to mantra. Whatever happens, happens. Just accept your lot and get on with it. Or, read differently, a certain level of skill and hard work will bring what you deserve. For the last few years, Scottish cricket would be forgiven for blasting that to pieces. But, finally, they just might be getting what they deserve, and it’s been a long time coming. 

As Mark Watt drove Scotland’s final ball of the World Cup for a single, the country back home was being battered. The wind was howling, the rain was torrential, daylight hours were few and the dark hours many. Yet, the bubble the players were about to burst had begun at home, during the long straggly tail end of a domestic season. A solid eight weeks had passed. It began with a worst-case scenario of fifteen games and best case of twenty-two. This all off the back of two games in twenty months. From one extreme to the next. None of the players would have seen the like. 

Josh Davey enjoyed a fine T20 World Cup

Perhaps the uniqueness was the perfect tonic. A freshness. A long barrier or a line in the sand to move on from the injustices and frustrations of recent years. Things quickly felt different.

Zimbabwe were defeated at The Grange. The three-match series was lost, but each match so easily may have been won. Although being T20Is, could also easily have been lost. Regardless, it was all taken in stride. Beating a full-member nation almost taken for granted. Heady days indeed. In bemoaning a missed opportunity at a series win, the players and staff perhaps gave an unintended glimpse into internal expectations. 

Then came the purple. That kaleidoscopic smattering of a Dulux purple colour chart. If you’re planning on going to the big dance, you best have your finery looked out. It all felt very fresh, very clean and very much like Scotland were heading to UAE to make waves, not simply numbers. The fact it was the result of a kids colouring competition made the feel-good even stronger. This was a team to get behind. 

The fresh feel was complete with transformation into some unbeatable juggernaut on touchdown in Oman and the Emirates. Three vital Cricket World Cup League 2 wins on the spin were followed by four wins in five warm-ups. Sure, warm-ups mean very little, but for a team who had played three T20s in over two years, it was immensely encouraging. 

Scotland’s successful World Cup campaign could change the game back home.

And so to the real question. What was to be success? 

For the Associate, it’s often not as straightforward as simply winning. Breakthrough – whatever that means – is real success. You’re constantly hunting for it. Mainstream breakthrough at home, international breakthrough within the sport and opportunity breakthrough for players. 

It is a cruel and ruthless spot. The ultimate curse of Associate status is that opportunity so often lies out with your control. The time of day games are played at dictates if casual eyes will be cast. The weather can wash away an opportunity in a flash. The cricketing overlords can create or break an opportunity based on whether they are willing to play you. 

So, a global tournament provides the kind of opportunity which must be grasped. The jeopardy wrapped up in each game goes beyond simply winning. For players who have to spend their downtime studying, setting up coaching schools and being delivery men, it feels grossly unjust that so much rides on something to which they can’t devote their full attention. The requirement to spend eight weeks away from home may sound like a worthwhile sacrifice to play international sport, but that doesn’t tell you just what that takes from a person. The cost in relationships, the cost in careers and the cost to your health. All for the most unwarranted of pressure. This is meant to be fun.

Ultimately though the objective boiled down to the only possibly controllable. Nobody quite wanted to say it, but even unspoken it was loud and clear; qualification for the Super 12 was a must. 

Side objectives would fall into place if the ultimate was achieved; more mainstream exposure back home, more franchise opportunities for players, more money for players and more prize money for Cricket Scotland. A simple win, win, win, win. 

Ask and you shall receive.  

Mahmudullah sat patiently, rested his head on his hand and stroked his chin. The explanation he was trying hard to articulate came for him. Flower of Scotland came echoing out the Scottish changing room. The bold and brash breakthrough had come earlier than anticipated. The clip was infectious, mutating from phone to phone.  

Three days later, and 5,048 miles west, I stood playing keepy-uppy with a mate pre five-a-side football. This particular mate has been very vocal in his utter disdain for cricket. He has used words that cannot be repeated about people who choose to play it. Disdain tends to reach fever pitch in Scotland around August when the football and cricket season overlap. The overlap is quite literal for the local council, as football pitches get slapped on top of cricket pitches. You’ve not lived until you reverse sweep a ball through a six-yard box. Today though, all he wants to talk is net run rate, where Bangladesh is ranked and Scotland’s “utter skelping” of Papua New Guinea. He informs me that he’s made sure Friday is working from home day. Breakthrough. 

The seven wins in eight were sharply extended to ten wins in eleven. Ultimate objective achieved in style. In hindsight, it felt almost a formality, why all the anxiety and existential pre-tournament words? Scotland channelled the full members’ treatment of qualification tournaments, all dealt with via a dismissive flick of the hand.  

But that would be a disservice to just how well Scotland played, and how spot-on their preparation had been. Despite the limited cricket the players had played for the previous two years. It was like being told you had final exams in eighteen months but were only allowed to study for the final two weeks. They had crammed day and night but passed with distinction. 

Kyle Coetzer’s captaincy was commended in the campaign

Aiming to peak at a certain point provides difficulty once you reach that peak. Where do you go after focussing all your energy on one goal? The boys were cooked. Judging by the colour on some of them, almost literally. The dusty, dry heat and pressure of such an intense bubble must play its part. There were still positive performances against New Zealand and Pakistan, despite being outclassed by India and Afghanistan, the only real disappointment came against a vivacious Namibian team. No shame. Importantly, there was breakthrough. 

There is hope moving forward. Competing at such a high level was done largely without match-winning batting. Outside Richie Berrington, and finisher Leask, the batters didn’t strike. If the batting can marry up with the bowling consistently then, even more, is to come. Mark Watt had more words written about him in two weeks than in his previous twenty-five years on the planet. He made various writers Teams of the Super 12 and ended up with a T10 gig playing alongside Moeen Ali and Imran Tahir. Breakthrough. 

The world is grubby and money matters. That’s capitalism baby. The game is underfunded in Scotland and only winning games can change that, and unfortunately, only money can change the game. It comes directly in prize money, then indirectly with increased exposure. The vultures want a slice. At least the vultures are starting to circle, instead of flying East or South. 

The pressure on the Scottish players to perform at a world-class level, despite not being full time, is incredible. To be so conscious of how your performance can directly affect the future of the game in the country is surely inhibiting. But, for this squad, it never became so. The resulting $190,000 was enormous. Word went around that the BCCI earns the same in 14 overs of the IPL that Cricket Scotland does in a year. There is no doubt Scotland earned this payday. 

Two weeks later and I’m back at five-a-side. Scotland has put up a fight against New Zealand and my mate can’t get enough. There is nothing that gets the general Scottish populace on side more than a fight. He wants to know who this Mark Watt is, why do so few teams play in a World Cup, does every player play every format, and how can some players bowl and bat. Then, he delivers his closing line. So when are we getting a Test team? No longer is it “they”. Now it’s “we.” Breakthrough. 

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