Wildcats Win But Carswell is Off
It was one of those images which sticks indelibly in your mind: the sight of Scotland’s women cricketers braving some dreadful weather and a torrent of traffic to stage an impromptu cricket match on the Forth Road Bridge in 2012.
Their message was wonderfully simple – just as that iconic structure traverses two different parts of Scotland, so Abbi Aitken and her colleagues were committed to spanning the gap between themselves and other, bigger and longer-established countries.
Mark the name of this Aitken character well. This is a woman who started her international career at just 14, who assiduously combined studying at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University with lashings of hard graft designed to improve her standards in the game she loves, and who has – at just 25 – already won more than 100 caps for her nation. She might speak quietly and pragmatically during her media assignments, but temperamentally, Aitken is as fragile as a moose.
This week, the Scots have been involved in two hard-fought ODIs with the Netherlands in England and they prevailed on both occasions, bolstered by the performances of such talented performers as Kathryn Bryce, Olivia Rae, Kari Carswell, Kirstie Gordon, Rachel Scholes and, of course, the ubiquitous Aitken, who ripped through the Dutch line-up with three wickets and a run-out in the first of the contests.
These matches really mattered: and the outcome has ensured that the Scots will move through to the ICC Global Qualifier next January. It’s another step on their magical mystery tour, but Aitken and her comrades are neither intimidated by the challenge, nor deterred by the sacrifices they have had to make along the route. Quite the contrary.
As Aitken told me when we last spoke: “The growth in the number of girls and women participating in cricket has been incredible. The development of the playing structure has definitely helped with women taking part in indoor, outdoor, Kwik Cricket, Twenty20, and 30/40/50-over formats of the sport.
“Coming from a background where none of my family played or even watched the game to it now being a massive part of my life has been a great experience and we have taken a lot of strides forward in the last few years. But equally, we know we are only at the start of the journey.”
None the less, it’s impossible to disguise the impact which this ambitious, highly motivated squad, astutely coached by former Scotland star Steve Knox, has made in their milieu since they gained the opportunity to compete regularly against their European opponents.
Nor have their exploits been ignored by their male counterparts, as I discovered on Wednesday evening. Safyaan Sharif told me: “I would like to say ‘Great Work’ from the Wildcats, they played really well. It was an excellent team effort from both the bowling and batting departments and that is what you need to win these matches.”
Michael English added: “I watched the Cricket Scotland tweets when they put up the highlights of the games and it just shows that cricket here is moving forward and that, with some more hard work, we can all progress as a cricketing nation.”
That theme was echoed by Scotland’s burgeoning all-rounder, Mark Watt, who told me: “They’ve done a great job, so well done to Knoxy and the Wildcats on their recent campaign.” And veteran spinner Majid Haq responded: “They work very hard, they have a terrific team spirit, they are very proud women and deserve an awful lot of credit for their successes.”
The key word in these tributes is “work”. None of what Aitken and her allies have attained has happened by accident. Carswell has been an inspirational part of the equation for as long as I can recall and it was disappointing to learn she is leaving Cricket Scotland for pastures new at exactly the time when her immense contribution to Scotland is becoming clear to even the uninitiated.
In many ways, she has been the women’s squad’s equivalent of Craig Wright and Carswell and her charges have transcended any obstacles with energy, enthusiasm and effervescent ebullience.
When they needed to raise money to pay for a trip to Dubai, they flung themselves into the task with the philosophy that nobody owed them any favours. That explained why they were on the Forth Road Bridge four years ago and organising a wide range of charity events.
They reached their financial goal, subsequently journeyed across the world and profited from tackling powerful English county line-ups. As Aitken explained at the time: “We used to be seen as a team who would just turn up, but we have been knocking at the door of the big teams and are now at a level where we can really compete.”
And how! Nobody is pretending they are approaching the heights of England and Australia, but when you examine the Stakhanovite qualities of this young Scottish ensemble, it puts many other organisations to shame.
Aitken was entitled to celebrate after the displays over the Dutch. But the women have more pressing matters than basking in ephemeral glory.
As she concluded: “We want to get to a World Cup and I don’t think it is far off. Cricket is very much a momentum sport and we have the potential to keep pushing on.”
It’s a genuinely heartwarming story. Yet these Wildcats aren’t just feline groovy, but convinced they can join the big beasts on the global stage.
I certainly wouldn’t bet against them!