Saltires lower the flag

TEN years ago, when Scotland began their inaugural campaign in the ECB’s one-day competition, then captain Craig Wright set out a mission statement.

He declared: “You have to believe you can play at that same level. We want to improve over time.”

The Saltires’ involvement in what was initially known as the National League was a bold experiment which started, quite unexpectedly, with victories over Durham and Somerset in the side’s first two games. That era comes to an end this week.

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The Scots take on Durham at Titwood today, followed by visits from Hampshire and Lancashire on Tuesday and Thursday. Then they will say farewell to regular encounters with their county brethren, severing ties to go it alone. Solely on results, few will hail this as a golden epoque. That bright start apart, triumphs have been like needles in the haystack.

Only once in ten years – in 2006 when they finished eighth out of ten in the Northern Division of the C&G Trophy – have the Scots escaped the wooden spoon. Without a victory so far this summer, a repeat of last place is their likeliest fate as they take their leave. In 121 matches, only 19 wins have been secured, a conversion rate of 15.7 per cent which has steadily declined rather than ameliorated.

“It was unrealistic that the gap would narrow that much until our players were professional as well,” Wright observes, a decade on. “Yes, we got more games against the counties but then you’d go back and play club cricket for one to two weeks. The only way it changes is if you’re playing full-time. Even now, we have full-time players but they’re not playing as much as the professionals down south. There’s more volume there.”

Four victories in the 2003 campaign proved the pinnacle. A side which was made up at the outset by amateurs and a handful of club pros took a step into the unknown and their fearlessness proved stronger than form. Plus, Wright offers candidly: “I’d also go as far as saying some teams took their eye off the ball and thought we’d be a pushover. That didn’t last too long.”

It was never wholly about results, however. Having cut formal ties with the old TCCB and opted for international independence, Cricket Scotland needed such regular fixtures as a test bed ahead of World Cup qualifiers and other global opportunities. It has been an expensive investment. It’s thought it costs around £75,000 a year to fund the Saltires’ cross-country jaunts with – under the terms of engagement with the ECB – no cut of sponsorship money or Sky Sports’ largesse handed back in recompense.

That expenditure will now be allocated towards the two nascent regional pro teams, the Highlanders and the Reivers. Initial proposals have been drafted for a new summer league which would pit the pair against the two recently-formed Dutch super-teams and Ireland’s three provincial sides.

“We’ll do everything we can to get more games for them, as well as increasing Scotland’s fixtures,” confirms Cricket Scotland chief executive Roddy Smith. “The National League, as it was, was fantastic because it gave them an opportunity to play a lot of cricket that they wouldn’t have got elsewhere.

“Now we have a situation where at least six of the first-choice Scotland team are in county cricket. And we’ve also got a nucleus of seven full-time cricketers based in Scotland. We need a mix of things to survive. We need to have more international cricket. We need to develop our own internal structure, which is why we’re keen to promote our pro series and a pan-European competition. Now we’re in a situation where when it’s the Saltires playing the counties, it’s half the Scotland team and without a big-name pro. So it’s always difficult.”

As a means to grow the sport, to entice the unconverted to sample its appeal as an affable day out, the county years have been a giant opportunity squandered. The likes of Freddie Flintoff, Andrew Strauss and Graham Hick crossed the ropes of the Grange and elsewhere without sufficient fanfare.

There was never any serious attempt to herd the masses through the gates or borrow the transformational tricks employed south of the Border.

Smith acknowledges more could have been done. “We had crowds of between 500 and 1,200 over the last few years but not all the time, certainly. That’s indicative across all county cricket. Other than the T20, they’re struggling to get people through the gate. It only happens for us when we get the big teams.”

Selling seats will be exponentially more difficult if the Reivers and the Highlanders are the standard fare. Walking by Raeburn Place in Edinburgh on Wednesday, dogs seemed to outnumber people for what was billed as the final of their Pro Series.

Their profile will be raised, Smith promises. Fanbases, he hopes, will be created.

Much will depend on Scotland’s attempt to qualify for the 2015 World Cup if there is to be a satisfactory diet of fixtures in the summers to come. Miss out, and whatever customer base the Saltires have generated might drift away.