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T20 World Cup 2021

Local heroes: How Scotland’s clubbies have earned a place at the top table at long last

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 5 minute read

After a long, difficult journey to get to where they are now, Scotland have qualified for the Super 12s of the T20 World Cup. Yas Rana looks at their soulful rise, one with its links firmly in the club game.

There was a brief but torturous phase in Scotland’s win over Papua New Guinea when it looked as if those hackneyed and fatalistic clichés of Scottish sport were about to come to fruition. That famous win over Bangladesh, the world No. 6s, and near total dominance over the first 33 overs against PNG came close to unravelling in a three-over spell of chaos that saw the Barramundis lower-order blast 45 runs to reignite a previously dormant contest, and puncture Scotland’s aspirations of World Cup progression.

Suddenly, in a game that should have been a foregone conclusion, PNG needed a not-so-unfeasible 46 off the final four overs. Given the momentum of the last few overs, this, from Scotland’s perspective, was no formality.

Enter, Mark Watt. Scotland’s broad-shouldered, imaginative left-arm tweaker with an appetite for the big occasion. With the second delivery of PNG’s 17th – and his fourth – over, he saw Kiplin Doriga advance out of his crease and fired the ball wide enough out of the PNG’s wicketkeeper-batter’s reach that teammate Matthew Cross could complete a smart stumping. In an instant, the venom had been sucked out of an increasingly worrisome climax, maintaining Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the Super 12s.

It was a dismissal that, in a way, epitomised the charm of Scottish cricket, the proximity an increasingly elite set-up has with its soulful recreational game. Cross and Watt are teammates at Heriots Cricket Club in Edinburgh, a side in the top tier of a condensed pyramid structure in the east of Scotland.

When Watt came on to bowl during the Bangladesh game, Cross could be heard on the stump mic saying: “One for the Nails [a nickname for Heriots] [WhatsApp] chat.” Here were two club mates who you’d find playing on a Saturday and propping up the club bar afterwards combining to great effect for their country in a crucial moment of a crunch World Cup game – a dismissal with more than just its foundations in club cricket.

They’re not the only ones either, and neither is their involvement in the club game cursory. Watt is the skipper of the Heriots side that won the 2021 Eastern Premier League while George Munsey – who enjoyed a stint with Kent this summer – could be found preparing pitches and undertaking coaching sessions at his club, Royal High Corstorphine, in his free time. As one of his teammates puts it, “He doesn’t have to do any of that, these guys are properly part of their clubs.”

Cricket lives a relatively complex existence in Scotland. Jake Perry, author of The Secret Game: Tales of Scottish Cricket, articulated this point well during a recent appearance on Sight Screen Cricket Journal. “It’s a really odd contradiction, cricket in Scotland. When I was writing my book, I ended up calling it The Secret Game because that’s what it feels like sometimes. It’s a totally bizarre situation. By last count, 17,000 people play cricket in Scotland. You don’t have to look very far at all for cricket being played during the summer. You’ve got evidence of cricket everywhere yet it’s still not viewed as a ‘Scottish sport’ which is bizarre. It’s looked at, to some extent, as an English sport. The England win gave a real taste of what it could be like. There was front page coverage, it was on the news channels and it was quite nice to watch, it was almost being ‘discovered’ by the mainstream media.”

That England game felt like a tide-turning moment. Finally, Scottish cricket had something that the wider public could latch onto; after all, there is no more important feat in Scottish sport than beating the English.

But in the three years since that day at The Grange, opportunities to draw casual fans in have been few and far between. The Euro T20 Slam, a proposed star-studded franchise competition that was to be held in Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands, never saw the light of day. Scotland narrowly missed out on the 10-team World Cup in 2019 and their recent schedule has been decimated by the pandemic. Then there’s the familiar problem of their biggest games – England in 2018, the T20 World Cup now – being hidden from the masses on Sky. It is, in many ways, a game still lurking in the shadows, agitating for more exposure.

It’s easy to understand why the support back home is so strong. Not only is there the ordinary will for their country to succeed, there is a realisation that that success is necessary for the game’s growth and that the agents of that potential growth are familiar characters. When the bloke hitting a Bangladeshi IPL star into the stands also happens to mow your club’s lawn in his spare time, you are naturally going to be more invested in their success.

That sense of familiarity can almost make you forget how good this Scotland squad is. Munsey has the ninth-highest T20I strike-rate of all time. Calum MacLeod has as many ODI 150s [three] as Viv, Dilshan, Roy, Lara and Guptill. Brad Wheal was one of the breakout players of The Hundred. Josh Davey is a frontline bowler for one of the best county sides in England. Watt is one of the most resourceful white-ball finger spinners you’ll come across.

It is frustrating that a side that’s obviously capable of competing against – and beating – top tier countries don’t get more opportunities to do so. Watt, speaking to Wisden.com between the Bangladesh and PNG games, voiced that frustration at the discrepancy in fixture volume between the haves and have nots in international cricket. “You see some of the Test playing nations playing all the time and if anything, they might be playing too much cricket and then you’ve got Scotland over here who are absolutely gagging for some games.” That they can produce a result like from the Bangladesh game with so little cricket makes you wonder what they could be capable of with more match practice.

There is a sadness that for one of Scotland and Oman, their tournament had to end so soon. Rising to the top of the Associate ladder is extremely difficult – the reward for doing so should really be more than such a slim shot of playing the elite teams. Italy, for example, despite boasting three active county cricketers, have just finished second bottom the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup Europe Region Qualifier, an event that serves part of the qualification process for next year’s World Cup. Scotland, slayers of Bangladesh in 2021, only just qualified for this tournament with defeat to Tim David’s Singapore in 2019 briefly threatening their hopes. West Indies, when tasked with a World Cup Qualifier in 2018, very nearly didn’t make it through it. The competition is fierce. The gap in standard between the top Associate sides and some of the regular World Cup qualifiers is far smaller than the game’s powerbrokers would like to admit.

It is an immense credit to Scotland that they’ve managed to create a side this competitive despite cricket’s long-existing inequality. When for so many cricketers there is almost too much cricket, it seems perverse that for players at their level, there isn’t enough. True progress, regardless of how they fare in the Super 12s, will be the luxury of one day rubbing shoulders with their newfound contemporaries with some sort of regularity, without having to endure such an unforgiving journey to get there. The beautiful thing about Scottish cricket is that, even as they take their steps towards the top table and prepare to face Kohli’s India and Babar’s Pakistan, their recreational soul remains intact.

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