Ewan MacKenna’s entertaining account of how Ireland’s cricketers have soared into the stratosphere from inauspicious beginnings a decade ago should be required reading for everybody involved in the development of the Scottish game at the moment.
Because, whereas Erin’s finest have turned qualification for major events, such as the World Cup and global T20 bash into the rule rather than the exception, their Celtic counterparts have gone into reverse gear.
And while some may trot out the adage that comparisons are odious, the truth remains that they are generally illuminating as well.
Nine years ago, when the Saltires marched into regular battle in the Totesport League, they seemed destined to climb up the ICC rankings at a rate of knots.
In that summer of 2003, the campaign started with a nerve-shredding victory over Durham, Steve Harmison et al, at the Riverside, continued with Ryan Watson’s destruction of the Somerset attack at The Grange – an innings which was only witnessed by a handful of spectators, following an afternoon of persistent rain – and carried on with an accomplished win over powerful Lancashire opposition at Old Trafford.
In anybody’s terms, these were noteworthy exploits, achieved before Rahul Dravid joined the Scotland ranks and, during that same halcyon summer, Craig Wright’s troops came within one wicket of defeating Pakistan in Glasgow on a day when “The Wall” was knocked down first ball!
Those early successes weren’t maintained; the English counties soon regained the initiative over the newcomers, but none the less, it was obvious that Scotland had some gifted performers, men of the calibre of Wright, Paul Hoffmann, Watson, Colin Smith, Majid Haq and – when they were allowed the opportunity by their employers – Dougie Brown, John Blain and Gavin Hamilton.
At the ICC Trophy in Ireland in 2005, I watched the Scots progress serenely through the tournament with a string of utterly convincing displays and they duly cruised to victory over Ireland in the final, scoring more than 300 and making sure the likes of Eoin Morgan couldn’t orchestrate a recovery.
It was only with hindsight that we could reflect that the Scots might have been better off finishing second; an outcome which would have spared them the prospect of tackling Australia and South Africa at the World Cup in the Caribbean two years later. But, on what was a glorious evening in Dublin, there appeared no reason to be downbeat or harbour negative thoughts. Wright said he was relishing the opportunity to meet Ricky Ponting & Co in Edinburgh a month later, and, fresh from watching Bangladesh inflict a shock defeat against the baggy-green brigade, the Scottish skipper dared to dream that he and his compatriots could pull off a similar tale of the unexpected at the Grange.
Sadly, though, that match was ruined by the weather and, in the intervening period, there has been a sense of stalled momentum about many of Scotland’s efforts. The World Cup adventure was a fiasco, with Wright’s ensemble not only trounced by the aforementioned Test giants, but by the Netherlands, even as reports circulated that the Scots had transformed what should have been an intense sporting campaign into an extended holiday in the sun.
The Irish, by comparison, beat Pakistan and Bangladesh, drew with Zimbabwe, and did themselves and the ICC Associates proud with some sterling performances, and they have been riding on the crest of that wave ever since.
Scotland, on the other hand, have slipped down the pecking order, while suffering a few embarrassing PR gaffes such as Blain walking out on his country and the late Asim Butt failing a drugs test. And now, just as they were forced to sit out the 2011 World Cup, they will also be missing from the 2012 World T20 competition.
It leaves one to ponder the question of how best they can strive to catch up on the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan, and I would argue that there has to be some frank talking about what has gone wrong since the high of 2005.
One of the first lessons which must be absorbed is that many of Scotland’s leading lights have failed to realise their potential and there is less excuse for failure now that so many of the team have been handed professional contracts.
Just out of curiosity, I delved into the statistics of Fraser Watts, who has recently become the first Scot to represent his country 200 times and they do not make happy reading. At his best, the 32 year-old Carlton man can carve any attack apart and he has produced some glittering cameos throughout his international career.
But the hard reality is that Watts averages only 28.64 in 36 ODIs, 28.54 in first-class outings, and that figure drops to a paltry 22.37 in his 135 List A games. For somebody with his natural talent, this is at least 10 runs fewer than it should have been and Watts’ travails embody many of his country’s problems.
When he’s good, he’s very good. But there is no consistency and little sign that he has learned from his eight seasons of locking horns with tough-as-teak county pros. The whole point of entering into such events as the CB40 was to expose the Scots to a higher level of competition, but too many of them haven’t risen to the challenge.
And one has to wonder how much longer the ECB will continue with the experiment, considering that so many in England have been talking about revising and re-structuring the annual calendar.
Domestically, the Scots have also been at sixes and sevens, changing the club league format every 12 months and then wondering why there is such simmering resentment at the grassroots. Much of this isn’t Cricket Scotland’s fault, but, time and time again, the elite players, the individuals who turn out for the Saltires, have repeated the message that the best need to be meeting the best on a more regular basis than currently happens.
It isn’t a wholly popular concept, but there has to be a new Inter-District tournament, featuring four or six teams, with the participants playing one another home and away, and if that means the Berringtons, Haqs, Mommsens and Goudies of this world are unable to fit in more than a handful of matches for their clubs, so be it.
The more enlightened clubs recognise that Scotland need to close the gap on Ireland and that simply won’t happen if the leading performers are feasting on buffet bowling in a second-rate competition.
None of this is rocket science, but there are parallels between Scottish cricket and rugby and the former has to avoid the predicament of the latter. In the 1990s, Scotland never lost to their Five Nations rivals and frequently dished out hammerings, yet the balance has shifted completely, to the stage where the SRU’s finest are in serious danger of falling out of the third-ranked tier of countries for the 2015 World Cup.
In cricket, there has been the same sort or role-reversal and, although there is plenty of raw talent in the Caledonian squad, Majid Haq was right to point out the paucity of 25-28 year-olds in the national side – it isn’t an entire generation which has been lost, but there are clearly a number of individuals whose early promise has withered on the vine.
Tellingly, perhaps, I recall writing a feature for The Herald magazine in 2003, highlighting the emergence of so many promising Scots Asians. But, for whatever reason, the majority of these players, such as Qasim Sheikh, Omer Hussain and Moneeb Iqbal have fallen out of favour with the selectors or seen their form dip alarmingly.
We need them – and everybody else – to prove they can finally stand up and transform their promise into the potent currency of runs and wickets against quality opponents.
It is urgently required if Scotland is to bounce back into the spotlight. And there are grounds for optimism in the emergence of a new generation.
But we have been here before. The trick this time is to ensure that the Scots look and learn from what their Irish counterparts have done and are prepared for the new demands of professionalism.