SCOTLAND will be hoping home advantage proves to be a boon rather than a burden when the World Twenty20 qualifiers begin on Thursday in Edinburgh. Sixteen teams, 18 days, two countries, all to decide the six additional entrants for next spring’s showpiece in India.
Fresh from a series victory over Ireland, and with a squad specifically collated for the torrid temptations offered in the art of crash, bang, wallop cricket, the co-hosts – along with the Irish – should optimistically challenge for the simplest path to the sub-continent: by topping a group-stage pool that includes initial opponents UAE, along with, in turn, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, Kenya, Canada and Oman.
Yet the margins for surprise are greater and the playing field more level, as the Scots found out to their cost at this stage two years ago when they were left out in the cold as the likes of Nepal and Hong Kong advanced. “Cricket’s a funny game,” Scotland’s Saffy Sharif notes. “You have to adapt quickly, assess the conditions. T20 is so much faster than I-Cup so you need to be more active and adapt.”
Although the International Cricket Council has placed needless limitations on converting the matches in Edinburgh and Stirling into the kind of adapted rock concert that has turned Friday night cricket into a hot ticket in England, it will remain a world apart from the kind of genteel Saturday afternoon menu that has become Sharif’s staple diet.
The village green in Falkland forms one hub of Fife’s summer circuit, their sworn rivals Freuchie resplendent in history up the road and upstarts Dunfermline prising their way into the fray. The 24-year-old fast bowler moved to nearby Buckhaven at the age of seven from his birthplace in Yorkshire and has never left. This is his home but also his inspiration.
“The lads in the Fife area enjoy their cricket,” he affirms. “There’s more banter. And people support their clubs. I live 15 minutes down the road and I’ve known all the people around there since I was a kid.” In a local shop window, Sharif’s accomplishments as an international cricket adorn posters promoting upcoming games. The local boy done good. “That’s why I enjoy it. I’ve always had that support and if I’ve needed something, they’ve helped.”
It was here whence he returned after Scotland’s win-free expedition to the 50-over World Cup in the springtime, a campaign in which Sharif remained an unused reserve. His time was not wholly idle. “Even though I didn’t play, I got a lot of publicity in the media which was exciting,” he enthuses. “But if I get a chance to go to India, I really want to be out there playing.”
Watching and observing Down Under provided a unique insight. But the core approach, he insists, was fit and proper. In the inquests since, there has been no appetite for radical reform. “We know what the standard is and how we need to lift our game,” he adds. “We’ve set new challenges and that’s been good. We had a few words when we got back from Australia but that is in the past now. It’s been more about how we progress and what we need to do to get to the level of Test nations. If we keep changing things, then there’s a risk we get mixed up with what we’re doing.”
Instead, Scotland will be encouraged to wave away the pressure and perform with freedom and verve. The batting potency of Sussex’s Matt Machan and Warwickshire’s Freddie Coleman, both choosing county over country, will be missed. George Munsey and Gavin Main, despite their youth, will be asked to forcefully prove their worth.
“We’ve done our homework on the opposition,” coach Grant Bradburn declares. “But it’s really about us and what we do.” They dare not drop the ball, not if Scotland is to repair its reputation and fulfil its target of usurping Ireland and the Afghans as the best of the non-Test countries. It has become all the more vital, now that the ICC’s monopolistic monoliths have swatted away the minnows once more by bolting the door closed on the idea of enlarging future World Cups.
Sharif has no fears. “If we do as we’re doing, I think we’ll get to the final,” he says. Practice, ultimately, makes perfect.
WORLD TWENTY20 QUALIFIERS
Papua New Guinea
Knockout phase (Dublin) 21-26 July
The top six finishers will join the 10 Full Members for the ICC World Twenty20 India 2016, held from 11 March to 3 April 2016.
The sides that top Group A and B automatically qualify for the World T20. The sides that finish second and third in each of the two groups will play cross-over matches with the two winners also qualifying.
The losing sides of those two play-offs will then play the fourth-placed sides from each of the two groups in cross-over matches with the winners completing the 16-team line-up for India.
The final, third-fourth and fifth-sixth play-offs will be used for seeding purposes for the World Twenty20 draw.
9 July: v UAE (Grange, 10am)
11 July: v Netherlands (Grange, 10am)
12 July: v Afghanistan (Grange, 2.15pm)
14 July: v Kenya (Grange, 2.15pm)
16 July: v Canada (Goldenacre, 10am)
18 July: v Oman (Goldenacre, 10am)
Other Group B fixtures
9 July: Afghanistan v Neth (Grange, 2.15)
10 July: Canada v Kenya (Myreside, 10am)
10 July: Afghanistan v UAE (Grange, 2.15)
11 July: Kenya v Oman (Myreside, 10am)
12 July: Netherlands v UAE (Grange, 10am)
12 July: Canada v Oman (New Williamfield, 10am)
13 July: Afghanistan v Kenya (New Williamfield, 2.15)
14 July: Neth v Oman (Myreside, 10am)
14 July: Canada v UAE (New Williamfield, 10am)
15 July: Afghanistan v Oman (Goldenacre, 10am)
15 July: Kenya v UAE (Goldenacre, 2.15)
17 July: Canada v Neth (Goldenacre, 10am)
17 July: Oman v UAE (New Williamfield, 10am)
18 July: Afghanistan v Canada (New Williamfield, 10am)
18 July: Kenya v Neth (Myreside, 2.15pm)