Craig Wright; Scotland’s future ‘exciting’

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Big things were expected of Scotland coming into the 2015 Cricket World Cup. An exceptional build-up had seen them run a full-strength New Zealand side very close, beat Tasmania, and have a “very good” batting camp in Dubai.

In the words of their assistant coach, Craig Wright, “I think we couldn’t complain at all about the quality and the quantity of the preparation that we had in the lead up to the World Cup.”

It was a build-up that was replicated for Ireland – who, in fact, had the lesser success on their tour – and which suggested a new-found respect for the top Associate nations. Not only are they now being taken seriously, but they’re given opportunities to expand and develop. Those tours somewhat belied the fact that Associates won’t even participate in the 2019 World Cup (at this stage), and certainly gave them the necessary oomph leading into the tournament to perform at a high level.

So while in bygone years, the performance Scotland showed at the 2015 Cricket World Cup would have been received with glee, the team expected better than they ended up with – a disappointing loss to Afghanistan, and plucky losses against all others.

“I think the overall take-out message was that we were first and foremost disappointed not to get at least one win, if not two. We went into the tournament having that as our objective; to win a game, or two if we possibly could. So we were disappointed that we weren’t able to achieve that, because we were certainly in positions in games – clearly the Afghanistan game being the most obvious example – that we could have achieved that goal.”

It would be a huge discredit to the Scottish to suggest that there were no positives at all however – Kyle Coetzer’s brilliant knock against Bangladesh and Josh Davey’s group stage heroics were remarkable individual performances.

“But as you say, there were a significant number of positives that we could take out of the competition. Obviously there were a significant number of really positive individual performances, and I think the team played, at times, in a number of games, at a level where we showed we could compete with the Full Member countries. So that’s a real positive for us to take forward, hopefully we’ll get opportunities to play against the Full Members in the future and our guys can really use the experience and the confidence that they derived from some of the performances in the World Cup to show that we’re good enough to win some of those games in the future.”

Following on from the World Cup, Scotland jumped back straight into preparation mode – while some of the players got ready to head south of Doncaster and play in the County Championship, others prepared for their Intercontinental Cup clash against Afghanistan, which started two days ago.

“Our goals would be simply to try and win the [Intercontinental Cup] competition. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Obviously the incentive for winning the competition this time around is far greater than it has been in the past, with the opportunity to play a Test match against the lowest ranked Full Member. So that’s an extremely exciting opportunity, and challenge for us to reach that goal, and become the first associate team to play a Test match, so that’s clearly the objective.

“In terms of how we’ve been preparing, we obviously have a bit of a split in our squad, in terms of our contracted players who are based in Scotland, and about half our squad are down south playing county cricket. So those guys are obviously down with their counties, playing the English County Championship. Our home based players have been training, we train at a place called Stirling, we get some pretty good grass training facilities there. And the guys are into their club season, and we’ve also had one three-day match against Durham second XI, so we’ve had some pretty good cricket and some pretty good training opportunities for the guys who are based in Scotland. Albeit the weather – the weather’s been a little bit iffy on a few days as well at this time of year, which isn’t unusual.”

One thing that Wright certainly doesn’t buy into is the media hype surrounding Ireland – in his view, it’s by no means certain that it’s the Blarney folk who will be playing that ‘Test Challenge’ in a couple of years’ time. And he believes that Scotland are well in the running.

“Yeah, I think absolutely. I think there will be a few countries who think they’ve got a realistic chance of winning the competition. I think Ireland know the Scotland team have improved sufficiently over the last couple of years to know that they’ll have to play well to finish ahead of us. Obviously Afghanistan, Holland, and some of the new up-and-coming countries who will be playing the competition for the first time – the likes of Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea – will be looking to put on a good show as well. So I think it’s far from a foregone conclusion that Ireland will win it, albeit they’ll be one of the favourites.”

***

One thing that’s evident is just how far things have changed in the last two decades. Craig Wright, the player, came into the Scotland side when they were working towards qualification for the 1999 Cricket World Cup, held in the United Kingdom.

As things eventuated, he was (somewhat surprisingly) omitted from the squad for that World Cup, but had enough involvement in the lead-up to understand exactly how different things were back then for associates, to what they are now.

“I think it’s unrecognisable, really. The changes in the last fifteen years. The professionalisation of the squads in the top associate countries has been a massive step forward, the amount of cricket that’s available for the associates through the ICC, the Intercontinental Cup, the World Cup qualification process, T20s, the opportunity to qualify for T20 World Cups. It’s really unrecognisable from the associate environment that I came into when I started playing for Scotland around about 1997, 1998.

“There’s been huge strides forward, but obviously there’s still some way to go in terms of the associates being given the opportunities to play on an appropriate platform against teams who are a little bit further up the chain than they currently are. That would be the next significant step forward, I think.”

Scotland’s development really took a stride forward after that ’99 World Cup, with, as Wright describes it, “I think there was a fairly significant change around in terms of the playing personnel after the ’99 World Cup. A lot of the slightly older guys retired and stepped aside, and a new team started to grow from the period after the ’99 World Cup, and went through and then obviously failed to qualify for the 2003 World Cup in the competition in Canada in 2001.”

But Wright doesn’t believe that the defeat in the 2001 ICC Trophy (which, as it was, could be seen as very unlucky) was an entirely bad thing.

“I think actually that experience of failing to qualify really helped that team, in terms of it development and developing a bit more of a toughness and an experience to go on into the qualifiers in 2005 and really nail that competition.

“I think, looking back, that the aftermath of the ’99 World Cup really started a process of a five, six, seven year period of the next Scotland team growing. And that was a Scotland team which ultimately became, for a period of a couple of years, the top associate team. Winning the Intercontinental Cup in 2004, and then the World Cup qualifiers in 2005.”

Following that build-up towards the 2007 World Cup, the side then failed to qualify for the next World Cup – held in the subcontinent in 2011. The qualifiers, held in 2009, were a disappointment for Scotland. What was behind that failure?

“I think, just simply, the players and the team not playing well enough. We had a squad which, on paper, was more than good enough to qualify for that tournament, and I think quite simply that we didn’t play as well as that team was capable of. Sometimes you can overanalyse these things, but I think that tournament in 2009, we as a group just didn’t perform to the level that we were capable of. There were obviously a few players coming to the end of their careers at that time, but with that experience and the quality we had in that group, we should have certainly finished in the World Cup qualification places, but obviously we weren’t able to achieve that.”

Wright himself was one of those players coming to the end of his career, with that tournament his last. It was a disappointing way to go out – especially for a man who had been captain since 2002. As captain, he was reasonably inexperienced when he took over, but helped rebuild the Scottish side into one that – as he said – was for a time the best associate side of the lot. So how did he look to develop and advance the side when he first stepped into his role as skipper?

“The biggest shift that we looked to achieve, and I was very fortunate to have a coach – Tony Judd, an Australian – who I was working with at that time who shared such similar philosophies to me in terms of the way we wanted to play our cricket, we really wanted to change the way that Scotland approached its cricket. I’d always felt in the past that Scotland had a fairly, I’m not sure how you’d describe it, but old-fashioned, maybe, approach to one-day cricket and we really wanted to develop a group of players and a team that was confident, and wanted to impose itself on the opposition, and impose itself on games, and play a really positive brand of cricket.

“So I think that possibly was the biggest shift. There were a lot of young players who got opportunities to come into the team and show what they could do, and challenge for first XI slots around that time. Obviously we were lucky to be playing, at that time, in the English county one-day competition, so we had a lot of cricket which allowed us to gain experience of playing against professional opposition, which I think really helped us leading into the 2005 qualifiers. I think it was really, the biggest change was a mentality shift in terms of the way we wanted to approach our cricket.”

That positive approach to cricket certainly helped Scotland leading into Twenty20 cricket. They qualified in both 2007 and 2009 for the World Twenty20s, and performed very admirably in both tournaments.

After those two successes, however, things turned the other way. Over the next three qualifying tournaments, they failed to make the cut, including leading into last year’s tournament held in Bangladesh. There, teams such as Nepal and Hong Kong managed to qualify ahead of Scotland, a big blow for one of the top-rate associate nations.

The next qualifiers are held in Scotland and Ireland, in a matter of weeks. What does the team need to do to return to T20 form and glory?

“Personally speaking, I think the team has underperformed in the last couple of qualifiers. I personally believe that we’ve got players with real quality Twenty20-type skillsets. And the way that we’ve really tried to play our 50-over cricket in the last 18 months just feeds into Twenty20 cricket, and I’m fairly confident that if our guys can perform to the level that they’re capable of in the qualifiers this year that we can have a really strong tournament.

“I think we’ve got, particularly on the batting side of things, some really dynamic players who can really make an impact on this tournament. Some of whom I think were available for the last qualifiers, but possibly not the two before that. I think the team is growing together, I think this team has had a good 18 month to two year period as a group, getting to understand each other’s games, and they’re playing with a confidence now that allows us to go into the Twenty20 format and put on a far stronger showing than we have done in the last couple of qualifiers.”

From what Wright says, the signs are certainly shaping up well for Scotland come this July.

One of the big things that has impacted on Scottish cricket has been the English county circuit. With players such as Kyle Coetzer and Matt Machan able to ply their trade in the English top-flight, it’s an advantage which would strengthen any associate side.

There is a downside, however. Just as Boyd Rankin, Ed Joyce and Eoin Morgan have crossed from Ireland, so Dougie Brown and Gavin Hamilton represented the team from below the border.

“I think it has a positive impact on our cricket and our cricketers. Obviously our ambition would be to be able to have the funding, and the finance, and the facilities, moving forward in the future for our players to be fully professional, and to be playing a fully professional programme of fixtures with Scotland, and in Scotland, and around the world. That’s currently not the case, but that would be the ambition.

“So that being the case, our players being able to go down and play county cricket, play at the level that county cricket offers, for our younger players to go down and play three-day cricket for county second-XIs, that provides them with an opportunity to play cricket in good facilities, on a really good level of the game, around a large group in a county staff of professional, hardened cricketers.

“I think from that point of view, it’s a real benefit. As I say, that’s something that we want to have in Scotland in the future, and it’s something that we’re working towards. But we also have really strong relationships in terms of our national under-15 team and national under-17 team, and our ‘A’ team, being able to go down and play against some of the county teams in the ECB programmes. So I think we’re very fortunate from that point of view, and I think that relationship provides us with a really beneficial opportunity for our players to be playing in a good level.”

One big change that has occurred with county cricket, however, is that the Scotland side no longer competes in the English one-day competition. It used to be a huge opportunity for sides like Scotland, and at times others like the Netherlands and Denmark, to be able to play at that level. But while it has impacted hugely on other nations – Dutch vice-captain Michael Swart spoke to me about the detrimental effects of losing that competition – Wright doesn’t believe it’s a negative for Scotland.

“I’m not so sure about that, with the team and the make-up of our first-XI now, it’s significantly different now to even five-six years ago, when we maybe only had only two or three players in county cricket. Now, if you look at, say, our World Cup squad, I think I’d be right in saying that seven or eight of those players are down, full-time playing in the County Championship. And some of our best young players are down there in county academies, playing county second-XI cricket. So in terms of our ability to field something approaching a full-strength Scotland team in an English county competition, I think we’d be somewhat away from that, whereas when we were involved in that five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years ago, it was more or less the first choice Scotland team that we could play in those competitions. Apart from a Dougie Brown, or a Gavin Hamilton, or a John Blain, who were playing in county cricket at that time. So I think if we were still playing in that competition, it would be more of a Scotland Development XI, and I’m not 100% sure that’s the right environment for our Development XI to be playing, we have other programmes for our Development XI and our Development players to be getting experience.”

Among Scotland’s best players of recent years, almost all have crossed the border and played the county game. Gavin Hamilton ended up playing a Test for England, Dougie Brown became a Warwickshire legend, John Blain was a dependable medium-quick for Yorkshire and skippered there second-XI for a number of years. Kyle Coetzer has captained at county level, while Josh Davey is taking county seconds wickets in the hopes of pushing into the top flight.

One man who never played county cricket, despite being the best and most loyal Scotsman of his time, was Wright himself. Why was that?

“Good question. I didn’t start playing for Scotland until relatively late, I think I was about 23, 24 when I started playing for Scotland. So counties, mostly, are looking to bring players onto their staff when they’re 17, 18, 19. A lot of our players, we have relationships with counties, so our players go down there now at even 16, 17 and start that relationship. As I say, I didn’t really get to the top level, I had a few years knocking on the door as such before I got my opportunity to play for Scotland, I think I was 24. So it was possibly a little bit late at that stage, and also just the way things were going at that time, there was more opportunities playing for Scotland, and in Scotland. Could put it simply that no one came knocking at the door, for me to go down there!

“Looking back, is it something that I would’ve liked to have had the opportunity to do? Yes. If I was coming through our system now, would I have been more likely to have that opportunity? Probably. But I didn’t, and I’m proud of what I achieved with Scotland, and I’m proud of the progress have achieved during that time, and I’m very proud to have been a small part of that.”

The way the system is now – with the opportunities for youngsters in Scotland, and with the Scottish youngsters having greater possibilities in England – is something that they have worked particularly hard on.

“We’ve worked really hard in the last six or seven years, to develop both the competitive opportunities for our young players, and the coaching structures.”

“We established our academy structure in 2007, 2008, which put in place a programme of skill-specific coaching for our best young players across the country, on a regional basis. So we have regional training hubs over the winter, with skill-specific coaches working with our best 14 to 17 year olds. From that coaching programme, we then have a programme of competitive opportunities during the summer, with the regional teams playing each other, and out of that come our under-15, under-17 and under-19 national team programme. As I said before, our under-15s, under-17s play in the ECB county competitions, against ECB Minor Counties and Counties, our under-19s have a programme of qualification for Under-19 World Cups, and we’ve been successful in qualifying for the last couple of Under-19 World Cups.

“So that’s what the junior development programme looks like, and then part of my role is to make sure the best ones out of that programme then get the opportunity to nudge their way into the senior representative pathway. In which we have our regional senior teams, the Highlanders and Reivers, playing the Pro Series competition between each other, and against Dutch regional sides. And then we have our Scotland representative Development XI, which is effectively an under-23 representative team, and then leading into the Scotland A team, and then the full side. So we’re pretty confident in where our player pathway is at the moment, there is as always areas where we can improve, but we’re pretty confident that the work we’ve done over the last five, six, seven years means there’s a real clear and progressive pathway there for our players to start at 13, 14 and hopefully go all the way through to making their senior debut for Scotland.”

Once the players make it through that robust pathway, and into the senior squad, there are some very immediate issues. Arguably the most important, and certainly the most eminent, is that of the associate exclusion from Cricket World Cups.

“I think it’s massive, I really do. Not just for the Scotland players themselves, but for the youngsters coming through. For the young lads coming in, 10, 11, 12, whenever they’re beginning to play the game, to be able to see the Scotland team on the global stage, playing against the biggest names and best teams in the world has to be an inspiration, and a huge incentive, for those players to want to aspire to that.

“When I started playing cricket at 12, 13 years old, there was no Scotland team playing in that environment. I loved cricket enough that I still wanted to move forward and play for Scotland at that time, and I was fortunate that these things came about during my career. But for those things, as I say, to be there and be on the table for our young players starting off on their cricket career, it just has to be a huge incentive for them to drive them forward and work hard and aspire to get into that place. Seeing those guys on that stage as they were in February and March this year, I think it’s huge, and it’s really important.

“And I hope, over time, that the ICC change their philosophy in terms of the way that they’re looking at the 50-over World Cup, and keep the Twenty20 World Cup as a tournament with significant opportunities for several associate teams to qualify. Because I think it’s a huge vehicle for the growth of the sport in all these countries, both from a playing point of view, and commercially, and in terms of growing the game from all those other angles as well.”

Below the World Cup, however, is a complex network of associate tournaments. With the Intercontinental Cup at the top, the infinite divisions of the World Cricket League constantly rolling around, and the occasional World Cup qualifiers cropping up, the calendar is reasonably well packed. Wright for one believes the tournament framework serves the associate world well.

“I think they serve the associate world really, really well, and I think they’re really interesting competitions. I think though, what the question would be from the associate countries, is how big and how wide are the opportunities for the teams who are successful in these competitions? In terms of what being successful brings, in terms of getting opportunities to play against the Full Members. Because if you look at the competitions themselves – the I-Cup, the 50-over qualifying league – there’s such context to virtually every game that happens, and the consequences in terms of where teams finish in each match or each series of matches is so significant.

“The tournaments themselves I think are fantastic tournaments, the big question mark would be, what is available for the associate teams in terms of the level above that associate competition. And obviously that’s been a source of huge debate, in and around the 50-over World Cup just finished, with Ireland winning those matches and the other associate teams by-and-large acquitting themselves rather well, it’s really brought that whole debate into the mainstream. Which is really good to see.”

Despite all that, he doesn’t see it as being a matter of having a pathway to Full Member status, as is being debated and bandied about for Ireland. Instead, Wright believes it should be performance ahead of status.

“I’m not really sure that it should be an issue of status, I think it should be an issue of quality. And that’s where potentially the best format would be a divisional structure, so the best teams and the most deserving teams are playing in the top league against each other, as they probably would be in any other sport in the world.

“So I’m not so sure that it’s an issue of status, I think it’s a matter of which countries deserve to be in each bracket. I think the argument you would get from the top associate countries would be, what have Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, or the countries who are at the lower end of the top-ten rankings, what have they done to prove they deserve to be there as opposed to Ireland, Scotland or Afghanistan?

“I think the structure, if it was the best possible and most fair structure, probably wouldn’t look like what it does at the moment. But whether there’s any opportunity or any possibility of there being a more equitable structure in the future, I’m not so sure. But the whole idea of status, I’m not sure is one that’s necessarily relevant to be honest. I think that every country should be a cricket playing country, and then they should have the opportunity to play at whatever level they have deserved to be playing at by their performances on the field.”

One of the issues, in terms of balancing that performance so a side like Scotland can prove they deserve to be at the top, is juggling formats. With Scotland playing an Intercontinental Cup match from the 2nd to the 5th of June, followed by the World Twenty20 qualifiers in July, followed by two World Cricket League Championship games in late July, they have a jam-packed schedule, and have to hop from format to format.

“It’s a good point you make, and we’re in that position this year with all of the formats coming up. So it’s a real juggling act. It’s about putting together the programmes, and being skilful from a coaching point of view, in terms of the training that you do, and just making sure that the players get the opportunity to practise their skills in all of the formats. We’re fortunate enough that we play, and we have played in the last couple of years, so much white ball cricket that I think we’re pretty confident of where we are with our white ball game. Obviously 4-day cricket, as a Scotland team we don’t have quite as much access to. But as I said before, seven or eight of our players are down playing in the county environment, where they get good exposure to the three and four day game. For us, with the players in Scotland, we just have to make sure our training programmes are taking into account the red ball cricket coming up.”

“It’s a balancing act, it’s a balancing act. But it’s exciting. And I don’t think it’s any different from players in most environments. Look at county cricket, they’re playing a four-dayer and then going straight into a T20. And international cricket, they play a Test series and then go straight into one-dayers. So I think it’s no different really from teams around the world, with the three formats being so prevalent. You have to adapt, and you have to ask players to be skilful enough to adapt to each of the formats. And the other thing is you have to be skilful in terms of selecting your teams for each of the formats, and making sure that you’re picking the players who are the ones who are most skilled in each of the formats. Because quite often that will be a different player from T20 than it would be in a 4-day match. Bit of a juggling act, but I find it quite exciting to have the different formats of cricket all coming up in a short period of time.”

As for what the ICC should do, both for Scotland and for associate cricket as a whole, Wright finds the answer to be twofold.

“I think the biggest thing would be the competitive programme, and also financially. That may not just be an issue for the ICC, but for the countries to be growing their organisations as businesses, so they have the finance to be able to contract all of their players to the country, rather than players being away from us for most of the year in county cricket. And also to improve facilities, to just improve and increase the quality and quantity of that competitive programme that’s available. So that down the line, Scotland, Ireland, Afghanistan, whoever, are playing a full year-round programme as independent countries and with the players contracted to them, at a level that’s something approaching the pinnacle of the sport.”

But while improvements can be made – there will always be plenty of improvement required – Scotland, and the associate world, has certainly advanced hugely in recent years.

“I think it’s come a long way, without question, and I think it’s got a long way that it can go. Without doubt. I think the professionalisation of the squad is an absolute sea-change. In terms of all of our first choice squad being able to concentrate on their cricket, day to day, as a job and be able to improve their skills, I think that’s been huge. As has having the opportunity to qualify for World Cups – 50-over World Cups, T20 World Cups. As I say, it wasn’t there when I started, so having that has been massive.

“But I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Our facilities in this country for professional players to be training in can definitely improve, our competitive programme for Scotland, especially against teams ranked ahead of us, can clearly improve.

“I think it’s exciting, I think it’s really exciting. And if there’s the same development and progress in the next 15 years as there has been in the previous 15, then not just Scotland, but Ireland and Afghanistan and the up-and-coming associate countries can be in a position where the global game and global sport of cricket will look far, far healthier and far, far more interesting than it even does at the moment.”

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