The Neil Drysdale Column
Ten years of the Saltires
I remember driving back from the first match when the Scottish Saltires made their entry into the Totesport League against Durham in May, 2003. At that point, it was a bold move to recruit the Scots into the competition, considering their amateur status, but this was a particularly resilient and gifted group of cricketers, who had the idea that they could give anybody a decent run for their money. And, lo and behold, with Majid Haq ripping through the Durham middle-order and the likes of Ryan Watson and Dougie Lockhart withstanding the efforts of Steve Harmison and his buddies, the Saltires made an immediate impact in the tournament. They won, because they had the talent, the guts and the conviction that it would be fatal to be regarded as second-class citizens.The Neil Drysdale Column: Previous Articles
They were right.
That invigorating experience happened nearly a decade ago and, sadly, it is beginning to feel like another time and place. I was also present when the Scots locked horns with Somerset, guided by the Trescothick template, and the hosts were brushed aside by the Cidermen at the Citylets Grange in a deflatingly one-sided tussle. Yet, in one of the most miraculous recoveries since Lazarus, the same performers bounded out of the blocks 48 hours later and made history. Yes, Ryan Watson has correctly garnered the lion’s share of the headlines for his spell-binding century, but that triumph owed much to other players, whether we are talking about Paul Hoffmann, James Brinkley, Ian Stanger and Craig Wright. The mood at the climax was summed up by Ally Mowat, a dedicated Saltires fan, who told me: “These boys have real talent. They can give anybody a good match.”
Unfortunately, in the intervening period, that momentum has vanished. Wright, a man who seems to attract a ridiculous amount of opprobrium from within the Scottish circuit, for no particular reason, is currently working with Scotland’s Under-19s and while the latter have bowed out of the World Cup in Australia without winning a match, it is both stupid and unfair to keep pillorying the squad and their coach. In blunt terms, there are too many Scots who seem happy to dwell in the dingy backdrop of anonymous post-mortems; the better option would be to focus on the emergence of some genuinely promising youngsters such as Ruaidhri Smith, Ross McLean, Freddie Coleman, Gavin Main and others in the mould of Kyle Smith, Matthew Cross and Aman Bailwal.
It may be a cliché to declare that these players represent the next generation. Yet most clichés take root because there is a central truth at the heart of their being. In the bigger picture, the Saltires have plummeted down a cul-de-sac of vulnerability, because a number of their elite performers started to believe their own publicity. Personally, this process reached a nadir in 2007 when John Blain harangued me for not being “positive enough” about the Scots, in the build-up to what subsequently turned into a horrendous World Cup campaign. Blain, who later walked out on his country – which, in my view was unforgivable – epitomised the attitude of a small cabal of the Saltires. Namely, you could praise them to the skies whenever they won, but if Somerset, Durham or Leicester eased to victory, well the Scots could always claim they were just part-timers.
In the same period, coaches came and went with an anxiety-inducing frequency. Tony Judd was – and is – a good guy with the right approach to nurturing and motivating youngsters. Peter Drinnen, a straight-talking Aussie, who berated me, on one occasion, for criticising the Saltires – following an especially inept display – was big enough and man enough to acknowledge that I probably wanted the Scots to win more than he did, if only for the selfish reason that it sold more newspapers. Even Pete Steindl, a fellow who has never wasted a paragraph where radio silence will suffice, is striving tirelessly to improve the Scots’ fortunes. The reality - that the Saltires are finishing bottom of their CB 40 group again, following another summer of dashed promise and potential – does not mean the new Scots are a bunch of duffers. Rather, it points to at least three central deficiencies in the way that Scottish cricket has developed in the last 10 years.
Firstly, and most patently, there is no point in handing out full-time contracts if there isn’t a full-time fixture schedule. I have a lot of admiration for Richie Berrington, but it is a dismal indictment of his talents that he is still at Greenock. Either he is good enough for an English county deal, or he is simply going through the motions. It’s not fair on him.
Secondly, Cricket Scotland has tinkered and tampered and essentially mucked up (I am careful with my consonants!) the domestic structure in their homeland. The SNCL may not have been perfect, but, at least, it usually pitted the best against the best on the club circuit. In contrast, the CSL is a shambles of maladministration, barmy competition, and an almost perverse way of screwing up Scotland’s grassroots structure. And it should go without saying that, if the latter isn’t right, everything else will wither on the vine.
Thirdly, the repeated under-achievement of the nation’s so-called best cricketers needs to have consequences for those who orchestrate the grand vision in the game. Roddy Smith has been in the role for long enough to have developed his own strategy, but even George Smiley might struggle to comprehend it. At best, the Scots are forever being dragged along by events, waiting for sustenance from an occasional tussle against England or Australia. At worst, the sizeable crowds, which originally turned out to watch Ryan Watson blast a record-breaking hundred against Somerset in Edinburgh, have simply vanished. They have given up on the Saltires, which is a huge cause for regret.
Ten seasons on, it is not impossible to feel quietly optimistic about the future. The potential is there, yet as Majid Haq reminded me last week, it doesn’t do anybody any favours to carp on incessantly about future prosperity. “We need to get away from this young-team idea when so many of the players already have over 50 caps,” said Haq. Until Smith and his peers get to grips with that, nothing will significantly improve.