Mark Watt tells a familiar tale about why he wasn’t supposed to be a cricketer. About why the odds were unfavourably long. For all the admirable efforts to fertilise local clubs and engage kids who might otherwise slip through the nets, the reality is that private schools – blessed with both pitches and staff – remain the primary breeding ground for emerging talent.
Playing fields that in decades long past might have become pitches in the summer were sold off in abundance. Concrete five-a-side courts do not a prime batsman make, while the sport is rarely part of the standard PE curriculum. “It was all about football, football, football,” Watt, who went to Edinburgh’s Trinity Academy, says. Until the point when he picked up a knee injury and he was dragged, wholly reluctantly, along to the cricket club where his father had a leisurely knock of a Saturday afternoon.
A few balls were thrown about. Seeds planted. “I think my Dad had tried to get me into it before then by sticking it on the TV but I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t for me,” he added. Improbably, he had a change of heart. The odds were confounded. “It was really only when I got older that I appreciated how skilful cricket is and how hard it is.”
Now 21, Watt will look to help Scotland defy some harsh odds of their own when the qualifiers for next year’s ICC World Cup begin in Zimbabwe today with Kyle Coetzer – another state schooler – leading the side into an opening group game against Afghanistan.
It is a squad carefully put together for a tournament from which only two of the ten participants will earn their way to England for next summer’s showpiece. “What a contrast from the way I had to construct my own pathway,” he says.
“Eventually I had to set up my own team at Trinity so we could play but it wasn’t like we could have a sixth year team or fifth year. We had to take anyone from S1 to S6 because initially it was extremely hard to round up ten more people from the whole school. I was lucky in that our PE teacher, Mr Spencer, pushed me to keep trying.”
Well worth it, now that the spinner has the prospect of at least two contests against Test teams over the next fortnight and with a meaningful prize at stake. A return on the investment made by former captain Gordon Drummond in an outreach programme designed to, at least, put cricket in front of the many rather than solely the privileged few.
“He showed me what was needed. Now to put it into practice,” says Watt, who has remained Scotland-bound since a brief trial with Durham. “This tournament is absolutely a showcase for us to demonstrate our skills under pressure against these kinds of opponents. If you don’t win games, you won’t qualify – it’s pretty simple. And if you don’t qualify, you don’t get funding. Every game means something in Associate cricket – whether it’s rankings or something else – but you have to deal with it.”
Nepal, Hong Kong, then the hosts will follow in the group phase of the qualifier in Bulawayo, with Ireland and the West Indies favoured in the adjoining group. Scotland aren’t supposed to make the final and earn the spoils but why not, Watt asks?
“I’d love to progress and play the West Indies. Taking on the likes of Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels would be a fantastic challenge. We’d back ourselves. We have no fear. Because we’re underdogs, no-one is expecting us to get through so we’ve nothing to lose.”