Scotland ready to deliver on world stage
PREPARATIONS could scarcely have gone better.
It was the day before Scotland were to play Australia, the reigning champions, at the 2007 Cricket World Cup and the squad was primed for battle. Mark Woods and I cornered Gavin Hamilton at breakfast in the hope of gleaning some deeply reflective preview material.
The last time Hamilton had been involved in a World Cup, you might recall, he had put many of the world’s best bowlers to the sword, not to mention bowling a few rigid spells as he made Scotland’s amateur national side look rather better than it was.
By 2007 he had left his England Test nightmare and the yips behind him and grown comfortable with his identity as a cricketer. He had mastered the art of playing to his strengths. Moreover he was surrounded at this World Cup by seasoned cricketers who knew they could cut it at a high level – Wright and Smith, Watson and Hoffmann, Brown and Blain.
In the previous two months Scotland had maintained the head of steam they had created over the previous five years. After a battering in Bangladesh they went to Kenya and scored runs, a lot of runs, breaking their duck against Steve Tikolo’s side and discovering Fraser Watts and Majid Haq as an effective chalk-and-cheese opening partnership.
The World Cricket League in Nairobi served apparently as the perfect platform for what awaited them in the West Indies. Where Ireland faltered Scotland held their nerve in a series of close games and looked to have their 50-over game down pat.
So it was from a basis of confidence, even fearlessness, that Scotland contemplated opening another World Cup campaign against the Australians. The draw had been harsh, but as he looked out over a labyrinth of mini swimming pools at the plush Marriott Hotel near Basseterre in St Kitts, Hamilton was clearly relaxed in the knowledge that preparations could scarcely have gone better.
“This beats Scarborough, where we prepared last time,” he said, evoking memories of ‘99 when there was no ICC money, no ODI warm-ups and certainly no tropical five-star hotels to help Jim Love convince his players that they belonged in elite company.
Today, Scotland have begun their competitive preparations for another World Cup with the first in a series of four needle ODIs against Afghanistan and Ireland. These matches are taking place in Dubai, not Dublin, and if the players feel like walking along a beach to gather their thoughts they can do so in the company of the uber-rich on the Jumeira Palms, a short saunter from their luxury apart-hotel.
All of this lends itself to the cynical view that if Scottish cricketers needed to be pampered in order to get the best out of themselves against the toughest players on the planet, how come they competed perfectly well against Steve Waugh’s Aussies in that opener in ‘99?
The unfortunate reality is that their display that day gave birth to an illusion, one that was punctured pretty quickly and lay flat throughout the 2007 campaign, when three more defeats were heaped on Scotland without so much as a hint of a twist. Eight games on, Scotland have never played anywhere near as well as they did on debut and if they don’t break their duck in the next couple of months, it would be encouraging at least if they could play to the best of their abilities once or twice.
“Last time, I would have to say that our preparations for the World Cup were really good,” says Craig Wright, captain then and assistant coach now. “We went to Bangladesh, Kenya and Barbados and played a lot of competitive cricket.
“There are similarities to what we have done already this winter in Australia and New Zealand and, to be fair to the ICC, preparation back then was pretty good. A lot of the guys were still in full-time employment and had to take four or five months off work.
“The plan this time was to go to the West Indies for a competition but that didn’t come about, so we might have had more competitive games than we have had. But the trip before Christmas was really intense – we had some cracking games in Australia and New Zealand.”
If preparation really matters, and we must believe that it does, Scotland can once more have no complaints. Their only excuse, in fact, for not winning World Cup matches will be if they are outclassed by better teams who perform as well as they should on the day.
“This team will be the best prepared team we have had for a competition like this,” says Wright. “The biggest difference is coaching resources. We’ve had a batting camp before Christmas in Dubai with Matthew Maynard, we’ve had Colly [Paul Collingwood] coming back on board full-time, we’ve got a video analyst and a fielding coach as well as myself.
“If you compare the two teams, that one that played in 2007 had peaked a year or two earlier. This is a team that has grown up together on an upward curve. The other big difference was that we had only had three games in 2007. This time we have seven.”
So how can these players, who have never tasted a famous victory either together or apart, get to a place where they genuinely believe enough in each other to pull off an upset? The last eight years have been strewn with giant-killing exploits by Ireland and the Netherlands, which have demonstrated that opportunities are more conspicuous than they might seem. Apart from beating Bangladesh at home, Scotland have yet to disrupt the global order and if it doesn’t happen this time, we might have to wait another generation.
“The key is to see this as an opportunity, rather than something to be threatened by,” says Wright. “One of the buttons we try to push is to remind the guys that there is no greater pressure than that which they overcame at the qualifying tournament, where they were playing for their jobs and for the very future of high-performance cricket in Scotland.
“Securing that was far more important than any match that will confront them at the World Cup. The difference is that what they do at the World Cup will be more visible.”