"It's good that we lost 12 years ago. It put a lot of things into perspective."
Sornnarin Tippoch, Thailand's women's captain, rolls back the clock, intense and excited in equal measure. She had, just over a week ago, guided her team into the women's T20 World Cup for the first time in the history of Thailand cricket.
Tippoch was the captain of the Thailand women's team that made their debut in international cricket in 2007. The team ended last in their group, losing all three matches in the eight-team Asian Cricket Council Women's Tournament. 12 years later, the team has taken giant strides by qualifying for a top-tier ICC tournament for the first time.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Travelling back to 2007, Tippoch reckons that the performance in the debut series was the catalyst that paved the path towards learning and success.
"It (the loss) gave us the motivation that 'Okay, we've got something to prove and we've got a lot to learn about this sport. That whole period of 12 years, gaining experience, playing cricket, learning about cricket has got us to this point, where we had set our sights for ten years."
The defeat brought disappointment but it also instilled resilience into the softball players-turned-cricketers. Thoughts of giving up their new sport were immediately discarded. The determination within the team to forge ahead was unanimous.
The moment Nattaya Boochatham flicked a full toss from Papua New Guinea pacer Ravina Oa to mid-wicket and scampered through for a single for the winning run in the 2019 Women's T20 World Cup Qualifier semi-final, the Forthill Stadium in Dundee was engulfed in emotions. The huddles, hugs, tears and customary bows painted a picture of a long-time dream finally coming true.
Tippoch, one of the only two surviving members along with Boochatham from the first international tournament, has seen it all and this was undoubtedly the "greatest achievement" so far of her 12-year long career.
The success hasn't come overnight. The Thai wave has been rising steadily over the years.
Amidst tight purse strings and lack of cricketing culture in the country, it's the hard work and passion of the players that have played a pivotal role.
"We have a dedicated number of girls who put a lot of hard work into cricket," Shan Kader, the development manager of Thailand cricket, and someone who has been an integral part of its ride, tells Firstpost.
"I would credit the Thai girls because they are very humble and from an underprivileged background, they are daughters of farmers, kids from foundations sponsored by people and don't have too much money. In that sense, they are very hardworking and want to do something with their lives. That is the extra push we have."
The administration led by CEO Mohideen Kader along with the Sports Authority of Thailand has lent a strong helping hand in the background. The improvement had begun post-2007, and two years later the Thai girls finished runners-up in the ACC U-19 Women’s Championship. 2013 though was the turning point for Thailand cricket. It was the year they qualified for the Global World T20 Qualifiers and that is when the administration realised the potential of this team and the need to install dedicated systems.
High-performance programmes were introduced. Professionalism became paramount. Good coaches, trainers, physios and analysists were recruited to strengthen the backroom staff.
Thailand cricket had started off with a mix of girls transitioning from softball to cricket and one of the most crucial steps Shan and Co took was to develop cricket players from grassroots.
"We realised we couldn't really just keep pulling transition sports athletes," Shan explains. "We had to grow our own cricketers as well. We had a domestic provincial setup where now, 14 provinces are playing cricket. This is where we grew the sport. So we have exclusively cricket players coming out of these set-ups."
Thailand domestic structure has 14 provinces which take part in the national games from where they scout the talents and then enroll in academies. Those academies supply U-19 and senior women's squads. Currently, there are 11 players in the team who have developed via grassroots and just three transitioned from softball. The special part about this team is it is entirely indigenous.
Growing a cricketing culture in a country and making people accept it as a sport was the biggest challenge for Shan and another one was retaining the players.
A lot of players would drop out owing to lack of security and money. So, the administration started handing out contracts to their best players, while the grassroots cricketers were given scholarships and enrolled in academies. Thailand Cricket has also had MoUs with top universities in the country which provided the cushion of security. Currently, six Thailand players are contracted. The Association has even started english learning programs to take care of the overall development.
Thailand were making progress but inconsistencies persisted. Failures in the 2013, 2015 and 2018 qualifiers meant that the big stage eluded them. The process, though, started producing results in 2018. The first glimpse arrived at the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur in June 2018 where the Thai girls scripted history by beating Sri Lanka in a thriller. A first win over a Full Member side was carved on their results board.
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The last 14 months have witnessed the best phase of Thailand cricket. The growth has accelerated. From July 2018 to August 2019, they went on a record 17-T20I winning streak. En route, they beat the likes 0f higher-ranked Ireland and more established Nepal and UAE.
This was the consistency they craved for. This growth spurt has coincided with the arrival of coach Harshal Pathak who was recommended to the Association by former India spinner Venkatapathy Raju. Harshal, who had been the assistant coach of Maharashtra and India women's T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur's personal coach in the past, took over the reins in November 2018. His biggest challenge, to start off, was changing the girls' mindsets.
"First thing I did when I came onboard was I watched the girls who are in the national team in a match scenario," Pathak explains.
"What I realised that time is that they had a lot of talent. They were wonderful bowlers, they had an idea of batting. The hand-eye coordination and everything was there. The only thing was, the intent had to change a little. The intent was to be more aggressive in all three departments.
"To be very honest, hitting a six or a four off the first ball of the first over was a little alien to them. But then I asked them you have 120 balls, in that you have to maximise, so what would you like to do? Obviously everybody likes to get runs...so how do you get runs? So we went step by step and once they are convinced, it becomes relatively easier."
Pathak emphasised primarily on match-simulated scenarios. The girls were given specific tasks, like the bowlers were given just four fielders, one in the circle and three outside, they were asked to set their field with two batswomen batting. The bowlers had to bowl to that field and if it went to a different area, the bowler had to run and get the ball herself.
There was a microscopic focus on batting with a need for consistency. For the batsmen, aggression was the key but it had to be welded with conventional cricketing shots. As a pair, they had to score a certain amount of runs in a certain fashion, hitting in certain areas and keep on repeating that. Centre-wicket practice was given precedence.
"Personally I feel batting in the nets or use of the nets other than the skills is a waste of time," Pathak says. "If I am right, we have not done more than 20-25 net practices since I have arrived."
It always takes time to adapt when a new coach comes in with new methods and systems he employs. The mental aspect takes time because the psyche is changed and you go on a different plane altogether. But it wasn't the case with the Thai girls. Their drive to learn made Pathak's job easier.
"Harshal enforced a lot of intent, how you win games," Tippoch says.
"That gave us a new edge and a new perspective on how to go about the games. You could see it in a lot of players. He built a lot of tension. We were very prepared to enter situations of high pressure and were prepared to handle it very well.'"
With one eye on the 2019 Women's World T20 qualifiers, the meticulous planning had started. The onus was to play as much competitive cricket as possible. High-performance camps were organised in Bangkok, Pune, and Pondicherry where they competed against the local boys and girls team. Pathak also introduced yoga and visualisation.
Amidst the camps, Shan helped in organising tournaments with different countries. The year started with the 10-team Smash tournament which they won at home. It was followed by the ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Region Qualifier where the team won all the six matches.
Then, they participated in the quadrangular series involving the Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland in the Netherlands where they finished top of the table with five wins and one loss in six games. In the build-up to the World T20 qualifiers, Thailand had played 20 matches along with a stint in Utrecht to acclimatise to the conditions that would be presented in Dundee in the qualifiers.
"It was all to do with the fact that we had to peak in the Scotland qualifiers," Pathak says.
Thailand did peak at the right time. Ahead of the tournament, Tippoch, an inspiration, idol and one of the biggest driving forces for the girls in the team, had sent out a simple message to the team. "It's a dream we have to convert into a reality. We are representing our country which is a matter of huge pride for us. We need to hold that very highly."
They won their first three matches and qualified for the semis. And then in the crucial game, they thumped Papua New Guinea to book the flight for Australia and indeed make that dream a reality.
Thailand's rise has caught the attention of the cricketing world. Back home too it has generated some amount of interest. Tippoch reckons that the qualification will help get the recognition they deserve.
"It will give us the exposure and recognition that we deserve for our hard work beyond the national body and a few people who know about cricket," Tippoch says.
"Globally it's been a very big demand and everyone wants a story on us. So that would benefit us in networking tournaments with other big countries, the top eight teams. For the team, also as individuals, we've reached a milestone, it's like fulfilling a part of everybody's life."
"We attended a seminar post the qualifiers, says Pathak. "And there were other countries who were very interested to know what kind of work we are doing. I am sure they have been influenced by what Thailand has achieved."
Embedded into the World T20 plans is the future roadmap as well. The core of the team has been there for quite a few years and that is one of the reasons for their upswing, their togetherness. However, developing squad depth and getting more cricketers into the system is their next big challenge. While installing professional domestic structure is still far-fetched, the association is looking at the players gaining experience and exposure through the T20 leagues around the world. Also next on the goals list is gaining the ODI status.
It's time for some much-deserved rest now, a breather in the non-stop journey. The girls have been given 15 days off. The road to World T20 then begins. There is excitement but a few nerves as well. They will be playing in the big league, on massive grounds, and the matches will be broadcast across the globe. Qualification was just a stepping stone; the real work begins now.
"We don't just want to go there and participate. We want to go there, impress and play a good brand of cricket. This is now where all the hard work starts. We have to show the world we are here to stay."
Thai cricket's expectations, as well as performances, have come a long way in twelve years.
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