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Thai high - the rise of Thailand cricket

Thailand are just one win away from securing a spot at next year’s ICC T20 World Cup in Australia. Beat Papua New Guinea on Thursday and they will be there alongside the best teams in the world.

Qualification for their first ever World Cup – in women’s or men’s cricket, T20I or 50 over – would represent the culmination of an extraordinary journey, but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Thailand, alongside Netherlands and Ireland, are the only two sides to have participated in every T20 World Cup Qualifier since its inaugural edition in 2013 and their current squad boasts the four bowlers with the lowest T20I bowling averages of all time (min. 500 balls).

Thailand’s rise as a cricketing force from a nation with little historical pedigree to one on the cusp of T20 World Cup qualification is one perhaps summed up best by the career of their captain, Sornnarin Tippoch.

Formerly a softball player, Tippoch was introduced to cricket at the comparatively late age of  20. A year later she was the national team captain. 12 years later, she could be about to captain her country to a World Cup. Born and raised in a family of farmers in Buriram, a province 400km east of Bangkok not known for its cricket, Tippoch was one of several players approached to try the game out in 2007.

Video cwc19 04 Sep 19
ICC T20WC Qualifier: IRE v THA - Match highlights

“I started playing softball first then transitioned to cricket because the skills were quite similar,” she said. “Then cricket approached me to try to come and play cricket and I fell in love with the sport, it was very exciting, very engaging and also an opportunity to represent the country and take my sporting career further. From 2007 to now it’s been great."

Now the CEO of Cricket Association of Thailand, Mohideen Kader has been an instrumental figure in growing the game in Thailand from being a sport predominantly played by expat communities to one played in and championed by indigenous Thai communities. In 2007, Kader recruited several young sportspersons like Tippoch to cricket.

From 2007, cricket in Thailand has grown from strength to strength. Since being recognised as a sport by the Thai government in 2008, cricket has spread to 14 provinces that all have under-15s, under-19s and senior men’s and women’s sides. Now there are over 3,000 women who play the game in Thailand. Exposed to regular international cricket, the women’s national team improved markedly over the following few years, eventually qualifying for the inaugural T20 World Cup Qualifier in 2013, winning the Shield final and effectively finishing fifth in the eight-team tournament.

Video cwc19 03 Sep 19
ICC T20WC Qualifier: IRE v THA - Thailand bow to crowd after tight win

The Thailand squad that year contained a core that remains today. Tippoch, opening batters Nattakan Chantam and Naruemol Chaiwai, all-rounder Nattaya Boochatham, spinner Wongpaka Liengprasert and star seamer Chanida Suttiruang all played in the 2013 tournament. 

After their breakthrough year in 2013, Thailand’s rise stagnated somewhat. They still managed to qualify for each subsequent T20 World Cup Qualifier, but their impact at each event wasn’t as significant. They lost all six group stage matches in the 2015 and 2018 tournaments and hadn't quite fulfilled the promise they had shown back in 2013.

Since the appointment of Harshal Pathak as coach in November 2018, the team has reached unprecedented heights. Among the highlights are a record 17-match winning streak, victory in a quadrangular series featuring Ireland, Scotland and Netherlands and finishing top of their ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier group. A former batting coach for India T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur, Pathak is not a fan of netting for the sake of netting, and places emphasis on practice that replicates game situations. 

Video cwc19 03 Sep 19
ICC T20WC Qualifier: IRE v THA - Chanida Suttiruang took two early wickets

“When I joined I didn’t have to find anybody, they were already there,” said Pathak. “They were talented, they had the ability to do what it takes to get to a higher level, it was just the fine tuning that we did. Of course we worked on some technical aspects which needed to be improved and more consistency. 

“We have now gone in a correct direction with a correct purpose. It’s always a task-oriented practice that we do. We barely practice in the nets. We prefer to practice in the open-wicket scenario.

“For example, the opening pair goes to bat, they have a certain plan which they follow and a task to complete. It could be something related to a run-rate or if you’re chasing or setting a score, to reach there you need to have a certain type of batting on a certain pitch. Tactically they have become much more smarter and they have started reading the situations and the opposition and that is a big plus for me because tactics do matter a lot.”

Video cwc19 03 Sep 19
ICC T20WC Qualifier: IRE v THA - Tippoch post-match interview

Thailand's preparation for the tournament was predictably meticulous. Aware of the climatic differences between Scotland in September and their homeland, Thailand participated in a four-team series in the Netherlands immediately before travelling to Scotland. Playing six matches (and winning five of them) in conditions not too dissimilar to what would be expected during the T20 World Cup Qualifier put them in good stead for the group stages.

Batting first in all three games, Thailand have actually yet to pass 100 runs in any of their innings - a statistical nugget that can be partially attributed to the weather. Their opening encounter against Netherlands, which was reduced to a nine over a-side affair, saw them post an impressive 76/0. Against Namibia, Thailand recovered from 37/6 to post 99/6 and against Ireland they defended 92/7 in another rain-affected contest by two runs. Seamer Suttiruang has been the standout performer, taking 10 wickets at an extraordinary average of just 3.20.

Despite the enormity of Thailand’s clash against PNG, Pathak doesn’t think the moment will faze the team. “Pressure is a very subjective thing. It’s up to you how you treat any situation. Obviously they know it’s a must-win game... In the first league game you still have to bat well, in the final you have to bat well. It’s the same thing, you just have to focus on the job at hand and I think automatically you get the result.”

Video cwc19 04 Sep 19
ICC T20WC Qualifier: Thailand's rise

Pathak may be right but qualification for the T20 World Cup would be the biggest moment in the history of Thai cricket by some distance.

It’s Tippoch who sums it up best. “Maybe five years ago, nobody would really care about what we’d be doing but now it’s getting more coverage on social media, the world is taking recognition. It rubs off on other people. It’s about having the same end goal, working hard in what you believe in, trying to achieve it as a team. Everyone has that general focus on what we’re trying to do.”

Aside from the actual cricket, Tippoch's side has captivated fans with the way they have conducted themselves on and off the pitch. Their signature bow to all four corners of the ground after each game and the smiles with which they play make them an easy team to like. Local Scottish schoolchildren have taken notice of them, with pupils heard cheering for the Thai team during their narrow win over Ireland.

Qualify for the ICC T20 World Cup and the rest of the world will have the pleasure of getting to know them.