BANGKOK: Anxious eyes watched on as Nattaya Boochatham took strike on a cold day in windy Dundee in eastern Scotland. The final moments of Twenty20 cricket can be exhilarating, defined by flashes of brilliance or strength or risk.
This was different. It was methodical, safe and secure. Still, her final single run to complete victory over Papua New Guinea unleashed wild scenes of celebration. They were surely justified.
On the other side of the world from home, in a sport mostly alien to their nation, an unlikely dream had been fulfilled. Thailand had booked its place at the women’s T20 World Cup, the first Southeast Asian side to do so.
“Everyone went onto the ground and started running. We were crying. And we were happy because it was a dream come true,” said the team’s captain Sorrnarin Tippoch, upon the team’s return to Thailand last week.
“It’s what we’d been waiting for and devoted ourselves to achieve for such a long time, not mentioning all the pressure, failures and feeling discouraged. It’s been so difficult and once we achieved what we did, it was overwhelming. Tears just came to my eyes. We did it.”
For Nattaya and Sornnarin it has been an arduous road. Both were in the side the day Thailand played its first ever international match back in 2007 in Johor. That was a humiliating loss to Nepal, where the batting lineup was skittled out for just 40 runs, a painfully low score for any cricket side, professional or amateur.
“Many rules were confusing. I wondered why we lost every game and I didn’t quite understand what cricket was,” Sornnarin said, a complete stranger to the game at the time.
The now 33-year-old had grown up in Buriram in eastern Thailand, a dusty, agricultural province and had been invited to trial cricket after previously playing softball, a sport with a similar skill set.
For the following 12 years, she has captained the fledgling side and been front and centre as a team of determined women rode the mostly unglamourous circuit of Southeast Asian cricket.
At Dundee, there she was again - this time triumphant - in a moment that punctuated her time in the sport.
Sornnarin embodies the spirit of a side often dismissed as pretenders from a nation of little cricketing pedigree but whose endeavour has led to a quite remarkable breakthrough. In February next year she will lead her team out onto first-class grounds in Australia and face the likes of England, South Africa and the West Indies.
Thailand will be one of just ten sides participating and will contest with the best female cricketers in the world.
They will be outsiders, but it is nothing new for this team.
‘THEY HAVE A LOT TO PROVE’
Cricket was only formally recognised by the Thai government as a sport in 2008. For a game with deep lineages dating back well over a century in traditional playing nations, cricket is still in its true infancy in the region.
Yet, there has been a tangible rise in participation of the sport in that time and today more than 3,000 women play cricket in Thailand and more than a dozen provinces have youth and adult teams for men and women.
It is part of a strategy to create a sustainable and lasting platform for cricket here.
“When we started the association we decided that cricket wasn’t going to go anywhere if we just aim at expats. We wanted to build the culture and build a legacy, starting at the roots,” said Cricket Association of Thailand development manager Shan Kader.
Unsurprisingly, he said, cricket was a tough sell for association staff as they toured the country trying to encourage schools and communities to give the sport a chance.
“We were like missionaries - people with bibles on their bikes trying to get people on our side. It would never happen in the city so we aimed for the country, smaller schools, rural schools,” he said.
While the men’s national team has struggled to make inroads against international competition, the women’s squad, initially made up of athletes transitioning from other sports, has excelled. Most of the team are amateurs who study or work outside their cricketing commitments. Playing at the top level is a serious sacrifice.
“They have a lot to prove. They are very passionate, very driven,” Kader said. “They’re obviously not from privileged backgrounds. It shows a lot of grit and a lot of determination. So they really deserve where they are today.”
National team coach Harshal Patak says mental strength has been a key ingredient for team success, as well as the building up of the players’ intent, aggression and urgency on the field. A side that already had strong fielding and bowling attributes when he joined in November last year developed a steelier edge and more resilient batting.
“It’s amazing the way they’ve adapted. I think it’s to do with their desire to qualify for the World Cup. Desire is the driving force behind everything. I’m extremely proud,” he said.
The next five months will be key preparation for the team and Patak intends to have them primed to compete, against the odds once again. Before they turn out in Perth for their first match, he intends to immerse the women in cricket-mad India to prepare for the pressure to come.
“There will be nervousness, there will be anxiety but it’s good to have. You have anxiety because you care about it. It’s a big step,” he said.
Sornnarin’s excitement is already bubbling away. “We have never experienced this, five-star hotels, flying from match to match. Everything is just so cool. We just focus on fulfilling our duty,” she said.
“We already have the skills. What we need is confidence. I know we have the potential to be better.
“We will have to really work hard. It’s not just about participating. It’s about showing what we can do.”