QUALIFYING tournaments for the Cricket World Cup are not for the faint-hearted.
Never mind the fundamental goal of playing at the World Cup, one-day international status is on the line and all the funding that goes with it, determining whether or not players can be paid in future and whether or not the International Cricket Council will deem the country worthy of any investment beyond the token.
Scotland and World Cup qualifiers have a rocky past. Craig Wright was not in Malaysia in 1997 when Scotland beat Ireland on astroturf to qualify for the first time, but he was in Canada in 2001 when they choked, and in Ireland in 2005 when they were the best on show, and in South Africa in 2009 when a dying team was put out of its misery.
He has so much history with the tournament that when reflecting on it with The Scotsman shortly after Christmas, Wright said he hoped that this year’s campaign would have more in common with Ireland than with Canada.
“And South Africa,” we interjected, and this made him roar with laughter. “I had actually forgotten about South Africa! It was so horrific that I must have expunged it from my memory,” he said.
Wright will certainly never forget 2014 when he took a team to New Zealand. Scotland, who have been hurtling down a seemingly irreversible slope ever since their second World Cup appearance in 2007, own a new sense of credibility this morning, an exciting group of young players having held their collective nerve to qualify for the 2015 finals, bringing an anxious winter to a satisfying close.
As if to prove that the inertia of the past six years no longer clouds any minds, they got over the line in a manner that disassociates them with the past. Scotland used to be notoriously bad at chasing significant targets, unable to withstand the pressure of batting second. They also used to struggle for runs full stop, a tradition against which Calum MacLeod, Matt Machan and Preston Mommsen have railed like fearless iconoclasts.
After five consecutive convincing wins, overseen by Wright and Paul Collingwood, they allowed Kenya to make their final Super Six match at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch revert to type. It was a cliffhanger, with opener Alex Obanda patiently leading his team to a robust 260 and the Scots never looking totally in control in reply. But in Mommsen, who has deputised superbly for the injured Kyle Coetzer many times now, they have a man who was born to lead by example and he ignored the comings and goings at the other end to score 78 off 97 balls.
When Mommsen was out Scotland still needed 35 off 25 deliveries with only two batsmen left in the shed, and frequently in the past this kind of demand has found the team wanting. But Rob Taylor, who has fully justified his recruitment in the past few games, and Safyaan Sharif calmly picked off the runs they needed, and with only five to score from the final six balls, they got home with three to spare.
If that doesn’t sound overly nail-biting, consider that Hong Kong’s players were watching on a laptop in Lincoln having swallowed up Papua New Guinea’s target of 256 quickly enough to overtake the Scots in the table. Had Scotland lost to Kenya they would have finished third and it would be Hong Kong, who defeated them in the first round of games, who would be making an unlikely journey back to the Antipodes in 12 months’ time.
In case anyone is wondering if there is any real value in the World Cup Qualifier final, which pits them against UAE overnight tonight, winning it will not only give Scotland some silverware to take home but it will grant them a shot at England at the finals.
That match would take place on 23 February next year, and it would take place at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, scene of the greatest day Scottish cricketers have known in almost a decade. Also in Group A, which awaits the 13th-ranked qualifiers, are Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and all the games would take place in New Zealand and Tasmania.
It is not easy to accurately gauge the importance of Scotland doing well next year. This will be the last 14-team World Cup until at least 2027, after the ICC shamefully promised the big fish they will not have to swim with many, if any, minnows in 2019 and 2023.
This is the organisation whose chief executive admitted this week that he encouraged India, England and Australia to form a cabal that might make the game collectively richer, and which will definitely make them richer. Scenes such as the party in Christchurch last night and the romance brought to two consecutive World Cups by Ireland are increasingly irrelevant to the people in charge. It is their loss as well as ours.