Players and coaches share their reflections with NICK FRIEND on a remarkable competition, looking back with pride, relief and disappointment, and gazing into the future at what comes next – the impact of qualification and why this event must continue
Fourteen became eight, before eight became six. There is little more to it than that. The world of associate cricket is a hard-fought scrum for opportunities.
It is brilliant but brutal, the land of the very greatest stories – Kenya, then Afghanistan, now Papua New Guinea – but also of those who came so close and yet so far. There is no middle ground between qualifying and not.
Perhaps, this has rarely been truer than now, a week on from a T20 World Cup Qualifier whose overall level of quality and consistent drama next year’s competition will do well to match.
The global game has never seen such strength in depth, nor strength in breadth. Singapore, Canada and Jersey – sides from different corners of the globe, none of whom have qualified for Australia – all beat sides that did.
Much of this is not new, of course. Talk to any coach of any associate nation about the game’s win-or-bust ruthlessness and they will have a story to tell. Funding, budgets, plans, jobs depend on coming through these contests unscathed.
“We saw what happened last time when we lost to West Indies on Duckworth-Lewis – it messes up your system, it messes up your programme,” Scotland’s national performance coach Toby Bailey tells The Cricketer of the cost of missing out, recalling the precursor to the 2019 World Cup.
On this occasion, in one group, six teams finished within a single win of each other; in the other, Scotland and Netherlands – both with big recent wins over full members – were forced to navigate their path through playoffs fraught with danger. United Arab Emirates, who lost out on automatic qualification only on net run rate, found that to their cost.
In the last five years, Jersey have won five separate ICC trophies – three 50-over World Cricket League events, and two European T20 tournaments, which paved the way for their appearance in Group B of this crucial stage – the Biggish Dance to the curiously coined Big Dance.
“To win five tournaments, you learn pretty quickly that each one is cut-throat,” head coach Neil MacRae explains. “In each of those tournaments that we’ve won, other countries have gone away feeling how we feel now. There was so much on every game.”
Indeed, MacRae’s squad – with an average age of just 22 and picked from an island of just 100,000 people – missed out on the playoffs by a net run rate difference of 0.391. Had they beaten Hong Kong in a game they dominated for long periods, they may well have made it.
Regrets, however, are impossible. There is a frustration in watching Oman qualify after beating them so convincingly in the round-robin, but MacRae speaks with pride in a young group and as a man hardened by these competitions. He has seen it all before.
So, too, has Ryan Campbell, first as a player with Hong Kong and now as Netherlands coach. After leading his squad to the title, having initially been beaten to automatic qualification, he admits that relief is the most pertinent emotion.
“It was so stressful for everyone,” he says. “If you’re not involved in the associate world, you don’t quite understand. It’s not just about losing a tournament, it’s livelihoods at stake. You lose your funding; you lose this or that; it is cut-throat stuff.”
Oman qualified for the T20 World Cup by beating Hong Kong in a playoff (copyright: ICC Business Corporation FZ LLC 2018)
Max O’Dowd, his opening batsman, agrees. “There’s a lot of pressure,” he acknowledges. “One game can decide the future of your country in terms of what it’s going to be offered financially. Qualifying for a World Cup is huge.”
A squad featuring a host of county cricketers and a cartel of impressive fast bowlers was expected to flourish, even if the Dutch entered the tournament with injury concerns and on the back of a poor run of form.
“Leading into it, we were in trouble, to be honest,” Campbell reflects. “But I was very proud of the way the players stuck together and did the job in the end.”
He reserves special praise for his seamers, who put in a remarkable collective shift in sweltering heat, and the ageless Ryan ten Doeschate – “the greatest associate player that’s ever played the game”.
In his view, it was the toughest associate competition he has been involved in. “The standard of the whole lot has just gone through the roof,” he adds.
“These teams are on the improve. Bermuda did fantastically to be there, Singapore did as well. If you throw in Nepal, USA, plus Zimbabwe, who weren’t allowed to be there, there would have been pools of death on both sides. A lot of sleepless nights, that’s for sure.”
Ireland captain Gary Wilson, leading the only full member nation of the 14 in action, described the tournament as the “highest standard” he had seen in a qualifier. His side, under the pressure that comes with such status, did a fine job; Paul Stirling and Mark Adair starred.
“If you stop for a second and you stop building and stop developing, then other nations are going to be there and are going to catch you up,” Bailey adds. “Everybody is desperate to get into world competitions.”
For Scotland, qualification is a vital step as they seek to become the international game’s next full member.
“The gap gets smaller and smaller every time we play against those different nations, so we’ve got to keep building, keep getting better, keep bettering our systems,” he says.
Seven years ago, Bailey faced Singapore in Division Five during his time as Argentina coach. It is a marker of the Asian side’s progress.
It is a viewpoint echoed by Papua New Guinea allrounder Charles Amini. He is the latest member of his family to have represented his country.
“It was one of the strongest competitions I’ve been in,” he believes. “In other previous World Cup qualifiers, there have been teams like Ireland and they would just win it for fun and go through the whole tournament undefeated – sort of like Afghanistan.
“This was such a tight competition. Even with teams who had players who play all around the world, they also found it really tough.”
For the Amini family, this moment represents not so much the completion of a cycle as the realisation of a dream. His surname holds such respect in Port Moresby that the national cricket ground is known as Amini Park. In a year’s time, he will be part of the country’s first team to appear at a men’s World Cup.
“It was a very, very proud moment for our family,” he laughs – he admits it has not yet fully sunk in. “My father, my grandfather, even my brother – the former captain; they’ve been through so many qualifiers but have never succeeded.
“For me to be the first not only in the family, but in the whole country, is so unreal. I was just very happy to make them proud.”
Rameez Shahzad’s catch for UAE against Scotland was one of the moments of the tournament (copyright: ICC Business Corporation FZ LLC 2018)
Papua New Guinea have come close before – most recently in 2015, but it is a remarkable tale for a group that has sprouted as one.
“We have all grown up playing cricket together since U12 and U15 through to right now,” Amini says. “I think that’s the key. We spend every day with each other.
“On the weekends, it’s club cricket and we see each other then. We are practically seeing each other every day of the week. That bond that we all have together is just unreal. A lot of teams say that to us: ‘You guys just look like a totally different team to all the others.’ They can feel how close we all are. I think that was the key to this tournament.
“This can open up so many doors for a lot of players to get opportunities and just to show that you don’t have to be playing cricket overseas or be the best players in the world to do what we’ve done. We just have belief; and with that, you can do anything.”
Australian Joe Dawes was appointed as the side’s head coach in February 2018; he is among a line of fine names – Andy Bichel, Peter Anderson, Dipak Patel, Brad Hogg and Jason Gillespie have all held the role in some capacity in recent years.
He has given his squad some time off before their next assignment; there is a diet of 50-over cricket to feast upon as part of the inaugural edition of the ODI league – a fine addition to the calendar as a source of semi-regular, pre-planned fixtures – before the T20 World Cup comes around.
“We’ve got back and given the boys a few weeks to just go away and enjoy it,” Dawes tells The Cricketer. “Life here is hard work at times.
“The game, we all know, can be really cruel. When it’s been good to you and you’ve been presented with opportunities, it’s important to go away and enjoy it. Go away, enjoy the time with your family and friends. Because when we come back, we’re going to work really hard.
“The boys are good; they know they’ve achieved something historic and special, but they know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It is hard for Dawes to put into words quite what it means for the people of this unique nation. One member of his staff embarked on his first ever flight as they made the trip to Dubai. Anecdotes like these, he insists, are the most satisfying part of the role.
“The associate world is very different,” he stresses. “It’s a hand-to-mouth sort of existence a lot of the time. The greatest part of this job is the fact that we really get to change lives.”
The impact of the result on a nation where rugby league has long taken precedence as the principal sport, dominating governmental financial support, is potentially enormous. Last year, the government of neighbouring Australia funded 48 new artificial pitches around the country.
“We were met by probably 1,000 people at the airport, cheering and giving us banners,” Dawes adds of the victory’s immediate impact on the game. One of his assistants jokingly complained of having sore hands from the sheer number of locals desperate for high-fives.
“There were a couple of highlanders from the highlands here, which is a fairly wild part of the world. They’re quite feared because they can be a little prickly, but they came up to him (Dawes’ assistant) and they asked to give him a hug because they’re so proud of his involvement in cricket and of what cricket is doing for the country at the moment. It’s an amazing place to be part of at the moment; it’s really special.
“I hope that the big dogs realise that we’re not a joke in the backwater, but we’re actually not a bad cricket team.”
Papua New Guinea qualified for their first ever T20 World Cup (copyright: ICC Business Corporation FZ LLC 2018)
The effect that World Cup qualification can have is a common theme; O’Dowd speaks of the joyful inspiration his country’s cricketing children can glean from Pieter Seelaar’s side. In a nation where World Cups are routinely associated with Ronald Koeman, Johan Cruyff and the like, today’s coverage can open new doors.
After all, the importance of a production line is immense. This was a Netherlands side without Peter Borren, Wesley Barresi or Stephan Myburgh.
Philippe Boissevain, an exciting teenage leg-spinner, was in the party but did not play. The 16-year-old Vikram Singh is another – not in the squad, but an example of a team’s regeneration, as is Bas de Leede, whose father, Tim, also played for the national side.
“For the kids to watch us on TV or first-hand and then meet with us international guys in club cricket or when we coach them is pretty special,” O’Dowd explains. “It gives them something to look forward to.”
The reaction has been similar in Namibia. Captain Gerhard Erasmus was the player of the tournament, while JJ Smit’s rapid 59 against Oman in the game that ultimately confirmed Namibia’s qualification may just rank among the finest knocks of the fortnight. In all, nobody struck more sixes than his 14.
And then there was the emergence of 19-year-old seamer Ben Shikongo, who provides yet another reason for excitement.
“He could be Namibia’s Rabada,” beams Rudie van Vuuren, president of the country’s cricket board and a member of the only other Namibia side to qualify for a World Cup back in 2003.
He recalls the impact of his own success on his life and he is exhilarated by what lies in wait for his country’s new generation of sporting heroes.
“It means a hell of a lot,” he says. “If you look at the comments on social media, they are from all people, everyone. Every single person. It’s not from a certain population in Namibia; it’s like the rugby in South Africa.
“This kind of thing unites us as a country. Although we don’t have the same racial tensions as they have in South Africa, it’s still true that our team is a diverse team. It’s not a one-culture team or a one-population group team. All over Facebook, the media, Instagram, on the TV, everything was about cricket. It was massive for Namibia.
“It’s hugely significant. The games were broadcast here in Namibia. It gives a lot of hope for the players and it creates great opportunities for them. Our pipeline – our school players and club players – now have aspirations because all of a sudden, our team is going to the World Cup.
“If you go to a World Cup and have a good tournament, in the modern day you might just be picked for a tournament like the IPL, the Caribbean Premier League or whatever. It creates opportunities and aspirations and it creates hope.”
Since qualifying, a cricket roadshow initiative has already been launched by Cricket Namibia, taking the game beyond its traditional communities.
“In Namibia at the moment, we are going through a financial crunch – a very difficult financial time,” van Vuuren adds. “When people see that our national team is playing on the world stage, they know they can make a career out of cricket because there is hope.”
The roles played by Pierre de Bruyn and Albie Morkel as a coaching duo have been vast. They have brought a calmness to Namibian cricket during a 14-month transformation. “Our first aim was just to survive financially,” van Vuuren confesses of a more turbulent time.
Barras back to a hero’s welcome!
Enjoy this special moment! Well deserved. History making tournament. Qualified for a world cup & then finishing 2nd in a major global tournament. Previous best was 3rd in 1982.
Soak it all in then alot of work to do over the next 11 months pic.twitter.com/G9SiUSbwZ8
— Chris Amini (@cramini) November 4, 2019
In Morkel, van Vuuren believes Namibian cricket possesses the perfect role model – a T20 gun who built himself a career around the world.
Smit has already taken part in the Global T20 Canada and van Vuuren’s wish is that his successors as national icons make the most of the opportunities that they have forged for themselves.
“I think the World Cup is just going to fast-track their careers,” he adds. “I sincerely hope that these guys start making good money from cricket so that people back home can see what can be done if you play cricket.”
Yet, amid the hope and optimism remains a collective fear – a concern at what comes next. In theory, the idea of T20 World Cups in consecutive years is a thrill.
But with just 12 months between two competitions in Australia and India, there is a limited timeframe in which to squeeze another qualifying tournament like this one.
Should this format be replaced by a more arbitrary region-based qualifier, as has been mooted in recent days, it would represent a crying shame, a failure on the part of the game’s global governing body hot on the heels of a fortnight that has opened eyes worldwide once again to the sport’s ever-expanding talent pool.
“That’s the world we live in; unfortunately,” Campbell says. “The big countries don’t understand it and when you hear of World Cups being reduced to ten, it’s quite ridiculous, to be honest. They don’t understand that we’re trying to build a world game. It’s an unhealthy environment.
“When you look at every other sport and their World Cups are expanding and we’re reducing, it doesn’t quite make sense.”
Throughout Amini’s cricketing existence, events like these have long represented the pinnacle. For many associate nations, this is as good as it gets.
“If they were to scrap this, it would be very disappointing for everyone,” he stresses.
“You want to play against the best to show that you belong at that level. If you’re not playing against the best associate players, how are you going to improve? If they do scrap it, it would be really disappointing.”
Congrats to @CricketScotland on qualifying for the T20WC… not going to lie, I’m feeling pretty low at the minute, but still proud of how the @EmiratesCricket players have coped in the most trying of times. We’ve fought hard but have been punched once too often! 🇦🇪
— Dougie Brown (@dougie1brown) October 30, 2019
Dawes, his coach, is another to champion its cause. Quite simply, none who witnessed the tournament – either in person or via an excellent broadcast with well-researched, well-chosen pundits – could possibly rail against its worth.
One would be hard-pushed to argue against the merits of any of the six sides that earned their golden ticket to Australia.
“I think those tournaments are vitally important,” Dawes reflects, “unless you’re going to put us straight into the World Cup every year – we’ll take that!
“Those tournaments are things you can base your whole programme around, as we did. You work towards it for 18 months. It’s cricket that the guys aren’t getting regularly.”
“Playing cricket is the most important thing for associate nations,” O’Dowd adds.
“You can see the quality of this tournament was great and it was a good watch. It showed off the depth of associate cricket.”
— Jason Gillespie 🌱 (@dizzy259) October 27, 2019
It was a fortnight that revealed a world of talent and presented, once again, a fine advert for the virtues of an expanded World Cup.
There is an inimitable togetherness to the associate community, an understanding of a common goal and shared concerns.
When Scotland beat England in 2018 and, indeed, when other similar results have occurred – Netherlands beat Zimbabwe in three out of four games in a white-ball tour earlier this year, there has been a sense of the greater good; the idea that a win for an associate nation is a victory for associate cricket.
Bailey described the importance of qualifying for Australia as being about “creating as much noise as possible so the media, the ICC, whatever stakeholder it is, understands the force we are, what kind of a force associate cricket is and just trying to spread associate cricket around the world.”
Dawes explains: “Just getting to spend time with the countries as well – it’s where friendships are built between the players and the coaching staff, which allows us to coordinate and get more cricket.
“We work together. We’ve all got our issues in our countries, we’ve all got our battles, but we all help each other to get some cricket.”
“The associate world is cut-throat – we know that,” Campbell says. “But there’s a great bond between the countries.
“Coaches will sit in a room together and discuss plans about how to beat certain teams or how to improve their programmes. That drives everyone to be better.
“When we go to big tournaments, we all want to beat the big teams because we want to make a name for ourselves and we want to show the world that we’re a good cricket team, that some of our players are amateur and yet we can beat the big boys.
“It’s easy for us to say we want to be in the top 12, but we want more than that. This team is ambitious.
“I think that’s what the world wants to see. That’s what the game is all about.”
Images © ICC Business Corporation FZ LLC 2018
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