x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Scotland's uncanny association with the game of cricket

Scotland have a steep history with cricket but have stagnated while others have progressed.

Scotland's Richie Berrington, left, is dismissed during the first day of the Intercontinental Cup match against Afghanistan. Ravindranath K / The National
Scotland's Richie Berrington, left, is dismissed during the first day of the Intercontinental Cup match against Afghanistan. Ravindranath K / The National

If you were to rank cricket by a list of the unlikeliest nations that play it, Scotland would sit pretty high purely on the basis of their antipathy towards anything remotely English. Granted that is a tough list: Denmark, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Brunei, Bulgaria, hello?

But if we agree that cricket can be such an English game, then it really is about as un-Scottish a pursuit as you can get somehow, so much so it is surprising it has not already been banned from public life there.

Except, of course, that Scotland have a fairly deep history with the sport. The first recorded game of cricket was played there in 1785; they had an organising authority up and running by 1879; and they had played and comfortably beaten Surrey at The Oval 14 years before that.

In the modern era, Scotland were, for many years, a solid second-tier cricket side. They had the beating of teams such as Ireland, Kenya and Canada and some days, in the right conditions, they looked competitive against the big boys.

Pakistan are always the worst side to measure quality against because they fluctuate so wildly but their 1999 World Cup side was about as strong, and talented, a one-day international side they have ever possessed. Yet Scotland, in only their second full ODI, had them on the rack at 92 for five in Durham one cold day in May. They lost comprehensively, but with a competitive loss to Australia in the previous game, Scotland did not look as out of place in a global tournament as some Associate sides have since looked.

But those days feel like an age ago already, because in the shifting world of Associate cricket, Scotland have slipped. In many ways they have become the forgotten Associate, obscured somewhat by the shiny bright trails left by the rise of Ireland and Afghanistan (maybe there is just not enough romance in Scotland's cricket tales).

On Tuesday, the blustery opening day of their four-day Intercontinental Cup game at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan hustled them out for 125; that score represented a bounty given they had been 68 for nine well before lunchtime.

Afghanistan were tight, but there was a reason why the Scotland coach Peter Steindl was not particularly happy with the performance.

It was not, as Afghanistan proved for a while later in the afternoon, a 125 all-out surface in any way.

Neither was it a one-off. Afghanistan have spent much of the past 10 days owning Scotland across all formats. They first beat them comfortably in two Twenty20s in Sharjah, then again in two 50-over World Cricket League (WCL) championship games and now this game, which, if Scotland do not lose, will be an achievement.

Put together, those scorecards look emphatic although the conditions in the UAE - and Afghanistan's familiarity with them - need to be taken into account. Scotland actually have some biggish wins to their credit recently, over Bangladesh in a T20, over Ireland and Afghanistan in 50-over games on home territory.

They are generally a more competitive side than Kenya and Canada and have beaten the Netherlands in three out of their last four 50-over games.

They are still second in the WCL table (and second in the Intercontinental Cup table as well, but behind Ireland in each case), from which the top two qualify for the 2015 World Cup.

But even if it is more a case of others progressing faster and Scotland just not doing so quickly enough, there is little solace to find in that realisation.

Stagnation is almost as bad sometimes as regression.

How has it happened? It is difficult to pinpoint one reason for it. A lack of funding at this level is almost always an overriding issue. Help is on its way at least; on Monday, Scotland secured an assistance grant of US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) over three years from the ICC, which will mostly be spent on development work.

The cyclical nature of talent production has also not helped. Even the world's strongest sides, as Australia and India are discovering again (and the West Indies and pretty much any side ever to have been good at any sport have done over so many years), cannot do much about this.

But they fought back a little towards the end of the day and that little burst left, fittingly, a little optimism. After all, this is a newish squad with as many as five county players. They are also fortunate enough to test themselves in England's CB40 competition against high-quality counties every season as the Scotland Saltires.

And now they have some money coming in as well.

Soon, cricket may even have to reacquaint itself with one of its unlikeliest teams.