THIS Sunday marks ten years since Scotland came of age in a cricketing sense, joining the big boys when the Saltires travelled south to play Durham on Sunday, 3 May, 2003 in their first fixture in the Totesport League.
Few people gave them a ghost of a chance, and even their own players doubted whether they could back up the fighting talk of their pugnacious Aussie coach Tony Judd.
Yet their win that day promised a bright future. The star was 20-year-old all-rounder Majid Haq, who tore into the home side’s middle order, claiming an incredible four wickets for 36 runs as Durham were held to an eminently beatable 167-7. Even then, the Saltires made heavy going of it, barely struggling over the finish line. Fittingly, it was wicket-keeper Colin Smith who scored the winning runs, the Aberdeenshire policeman smacking Dewald Pretorious to the boundary to deliver the part-timers’ winning runs.
If Scotland came back down to earth with a thump when Marcus Trescothick smashed Somerset to a crushing victory at The Grange, lightning struck again in an overs-restricted match two days later when Ryan Watson scored an unbeaten 103 from just 44 balls, including four consecutive sixes off Somerset’s Keith Dutch, as the Saltires reached their target with three balls to spare. It was a victory as remarkable as their opening-day win at Durham.
That, however, was to be the Saltires’ high water mark. The ten years since those heady opening days have contained some trying times, and none more than now. Last week skipper Gordon Drummond stepped down after a disastrous trip to Dubai, where embattled coach Peter Steindl’s side were well beaten by Afghanistan, dramatically lengthening Scotland’s odds of reaching the 2015 World Cup.
The 2013-14 season is now crucial. It starts in earnest today in Southampton against Hampshire in the Yorkshire Bank 40 but its first red-letter days are for the visit of Pakistan later this month for two one-day internationals at The Grange. That’s followed by a four-day game against Australia A, crucial fixtures against Kenya and Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup and the World Cricket League, not forgetting the visit of Australia to The Grange in September. This is also the Saltires’ final bow in the 40-over competition, which is being revamped for 2014.
If that sounds like a hellishly difficult season, Moneeb Iqbal reckons it could be the making of Scotland. If any Scot understands the difficulties of making good on early promise, it’s Iqbal, the cricketing prodigy from Glasgow’s Southside who was called into the Scotland squad at 15, set a record that still stands when he made his debut for his country at 16, who was whisked off to Durham to ply his trade for seven years, before returning home with his first-class dreams unfulfilled. Now 27, he finally believes he will make good on the youthful promise which saw him feted as Scotland’s future. Even a mixed tour to Dubai has merely reinforced his determination to make this his year. Despite going out with high hopes, and starting well by claiming three wickets and scoring 26 not out as the Saltires beat UAE Blues, he struggled with the bat against the Afghans and failed to take a wicket, his leg-spin taking some fearsome punishment in one spell, with 21 runs conceded in two overs.
Yet Iqbal remains upbeat about both his own and Scotland’s prospects. “Like me, Scotland’s been through a tough time,” he said. “We had a whole generation of really good players who’ve all left at the same time, and we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and start building again. It has been tough, but all teams go through this.
“Dubai was a big deal for me and although things didn’t go so well for me or for us as a team, I still enjoyed it and there were major pluses.”
The main thing, believes Iqbal, is that in Iain Wardlaw, Kyle Coetzer, Josh Davey, Matt Machan, Freddie Coleman, Calum MacLeod, David Murphy, Majid Haq, Ollie Hairs and Ally Evans Scotland have players with the talent to succeed, while Richie Berrington and stand-in skipper Preston Mommsen provide direction and leadership. There is also an impressive generation of youngsters coming through. Iqbal picks out Mike Leask and Calvin Burnett, who play against Hampshire today, and Glasgow schoolboys Andrew Umeed and Clydesdale’s Saffiano Sharif as four outstanding youngsters, but says there are several others.
The important thing, says Iqbal, is that to succeed you have to be happy in your own skin, which has proven as difficult for Scotland as for him.
“The most important thing is a mentality that demands that you win every game, no matter how unimportant it might seem,” he says. “I now have the self-belief to go out there and get myself into the zone every time. I’ve had a really up-and-down career, but what happened at Durham made me who I am today. I’ve got a desperate hunger to win because I was picked so young, then didn’t play for a while, then went down to Durham.
“I’d never change my time at Durham because it made me strong and taught me that the most important attribute for any player is being able to stand up and fight for what you want to achieve. Hopefully Scotland can do the same thing, starting in Hampshire.”