World T20: Scotland Preview

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Cricket Scotland captain Preston Mommsen is one of life’s cerebral sporting figures. It’s as difficult to imagine him getting involved in pedalo scandals or nightclub brawls as it is to picture Jeremy Clarkson at a bus stop.

That is why it was so instructive to watch the Scottish captain after last year’s World Cup defeat to Afghanistan where his team seemed to have victory wrapped up in a lovely bow before their opponents edged home by one wicket after being allowed back into the game.

The outcome, frustrating as it was for Mommsen and his colleagues, has become something of a recurring theme in Scottish cricket.

They’ve participated in 13 World Cup fixtures since 1999 and lost them all. They’ve also produced some terrific displays at various tournaments in the last decade, including scoring over 80 in six overs against New Zealand in a rain-truncated World T20 contest – and yet they still couldn’t earn the coveted victory over an elite ICC country which other Associates, including Ireland and The Netherlands, have managed during the same period.

Perhaps that explains why there was so much tiptoeing around the subject when I asked several former Scotland stars how they reckoned their compatriots would fare in the World T20 competition in India this week. None of them were downright pessimistic about the squad’s prospects of prevailing in group tussles with Afghanistan – again – Zimbabwe – for the first time – and Hong Kong, with whom they drew 1-1 in a brace of T20s earlier this year.

But, there again, nobody was exactly brimful with optimism either. “It’s hard to know what to expect from this Scotland team. But the experience of playing in the World Cup last year will help and Twenty20 cricket closes the gap between the minnows and the heavyweights,” said Paul Hoffmann, the genial Australian-born bowler, who amassed 119 Scotland caps.

“I still remember that [Totesport League] game against Somerset in 2003 when we chased down 180 in 15 overs at The Grange and the few Scots fans still in the ground after the rain in Edinburgh went crazy.

“Ian Blackwell commented to James Brinkley that the smaller number of overs actually helped us, because we could just throw caution to the wind and he had a point. We just went for it from the first ball.

“The positive thing is that we definitely have a number of genuine T20 players like Richie Berrington and Calum MacLeod. They should handle the big occasion better after last year’s experience at the World Cup. But beating all the other Associate countries must be our aim, as well as gaining the one big scalp which has eluded us so far.”

One positive aspect for Mommsen and Scottish coach, Grant Bradburn, is that they know they belong in this company. And their personnel have regularly threatened to batter down the door, whether in Kyle Coetzer’s magnificent 156 against Bangladesh in New Zealand 12 months ago, or in Berrington’s equally lustrous century against the same opponents in 2012 which helped the Scots record a 34-run success in The Hague.

Yet, if it is true, in professional sport, that the only thing which matters is results, the reality is the Scots have under-achieved in recent seasons and remain annoyingly inconsistent, as they demonstrated during Friday’s warm-up loss to Oman.

There also has to be a concern, despite an excellent start to his international career from youthful spinner, Mark Watt, that Bradburn has not done himself any favours by omitting the Scots’ record wicket-taker and cap-holder Majid Haq, for reasons which have nothing to do with cricket, and especially in Indian conditions which would have suited Haq down to the ground.

The bowler, who was sent home from the World Cup after posting a race-related message on Twitter, has never apologised for his actions – he doesn’t believe he needs to and maintains he has already been punished for it by the governing body – but he harbours no ill feelings towards the Scots, many of whom remain his friends.

Indeed, as he told me: “I think Scotland have an excellent chance of progressing out of their qualifying round. The squad has got a long powerful batting line-up, good options with the bowling and good athletes in the field.

Again, as in the past, it is about performing on the big stage under pressure and I am sure that if the players, and especially the senior guys in the squad do that, then Scotland have a great chance.”

It’s the usual ifs and buts which have defined Scottish sport for too long, but one senses Mommsen’s pain from that Afghan defeat will be a powerful motivating factor in next week’s cut-throat environment. And there is certainly no dearth of batting power with Matt Machan and Michael Leask also capable of pyrotechnics and all the latest ramp shots and sweeps which have transformed the short-firm game.

Ultimately, though, the bowling looks limited and there is nowhere to hide in Twenty20 once things go wrong. As another former Scottish star declared last week: “We could win all three or lose all three. It’s just the way we are at the moment.”

Those waving the Saltires on the sidelines have to hope the World Cup malady doesn’t linger on.

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