Cricket: Scots' chance to make mark

The outsiders in cricket's World Cup are preparing for their big test by sweating it out in the heat of Sharjah.
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OF ALL the 15-man squads named for next month's World Cup, only Bangladesh's will have seemed more anonymous than Scotland's.

The incognito element is not some canny plan and George Salmond, their captain, was only half kidding when he reckoned he and his team could stroll down Prince's Street in Edinburgh and go unrecognised by their own families. Yet anonymity has not meant a lack of ambition and Scotland, despite bookmakers odds of 500-1, are hoping that a decent showing will persuade the International Cricket Council to award them the one-day international status recently bestowed upon Bangladesh and Kenya.

It will be a big ask and, to even succeed in drawing the appropriate attention to themselves, they will probably have to turn over both Bangladesh as well as one of the four Test playing countries in their group. Even then, the biggest battle will be to ignite some genuine interest outside their band of hardcore supporters.

Scotland's most famous cricketer of recent times is, in fact, a footballer. Andy Goram kept goal 43 times for Scotland, a figure that swamps the five appearances, made between 1989 and '91, that he notched up for his country wearing whites.

A hard-hitting batsmen who could bowl, Goram's cricket career effectively ended when Walter Smith, then the manager of Rangers, banned his future participation following the player's transfer from Hibernian. A colourful character, Goram's plight in having choosing football over cricket is not confined to lands north of Hadrian's Wall, and England too has been afflicted by the so-called "soccerisation" of other sports.

Cricket, unlike the Tories, is not an oddity in Scotland and more clubs brandish bats and balls than play rugby. Indeed, since qualifying for the World Cup - they beat Ireland to third place in the ICC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur for a place - they have been moving ahead with gusto. The World Cup presents a marvellous opportunity for players whose previous career high points will have been limited to the NatWest Trophy and the old Benson and Hedges Cup. In fact, the opportunity to compete against the best has forced them outdoors and they are currently following England's recent example of warming up in Sharjah, with fitness consultant and psychologist in tow.

Following age-old Sassenach rumours that permafrost persists in Scottish pitches until mid-summer, and with inclement weather a constant threat all over Britain at this time of year, it is a sensible idea. Although England may be questioning the wisdom of their recent trip there, after losing three of their four matches, the heat and facilities in Sharjah, as well as the promise of opposition in the shape of the United Arab Emirates national team, have offered the Scots a welcome change from weekly indoor nets in Glasgow - the squad's only preparation since the end of last season.

"We just want to get into some good habits," explained Salmond, a state that presumably had not taken hold by the first match, which was lost.

Having qualified for the last World Cup, the UAE, with a large immigrant population from India and Pakistan, are no slouches and, before restrictions over residency were tightened, they were one of the better non-Test playing countries. Now, players representing such teams have either to be born there or have been resident for at least four years. Asim Butt, with no obvious clan connections other than a nifty line in left-arm over, has qualified for Scotland via the latter.

More or less the sole amateur side in the competition - the two full- time professionals, Gavin Hamilton and John Blain, play for Yorkshire and Northamptonshire respectively - Sharjah will have given most of the players their first taste of the white ball. If it all sounds convincingly professional, the only worry, particularly with 12 more days of preparation set aside from 3 May, is that the squad could well be knackered by the time they face Australia in their opening match at Worcester.

"You've got to remember," says Jim Love, their coach, "that most of the side have never played or practised cricket on a sustained daily basis before. We might have got the fitness consultant and the sports psychologist, but the next month will be as intensive as it gets. It's difficult to prepare for that if you've never done it."

Love, who once played county cricket for Yorkshire, won three one-day caps for England back in the early 80s. A powerful strokeplayer, there are many who felt he squandered his abundant talents at the time with a lack of application and ambition. As Scotland's coach for the last six years, however, his efforts, particularly in setting up youth cricket - virtually non-existent five years ago - have met with nothing but praise. To take that incursion into the psyche of Scotland's youth a step further, it is vital that the team make a good fist of things over the coming weeks.

"It could go both ways," reckons Salmond, a teacher at George Watson's college in Edinburgh. "If we get a real drubbing, it could put a lot of youngsters off. But if we really compete, and make the Test playing countries work hard to beat us, it could just be the start of greater things. In some ways it's a pity England aren't in our group. A match with them would bound to stir up some interest."

Salmond, like all but the two professionals in the squad, has had to negotiate time off for the World Cup. But if lottery funds have helped ease the burden of unpaid leave, there have been casualties. Kevin Thomson, an opening bowler who played in Kuala Lumpur, could simply not afford the time off.

Nevertheless, it is the bowling, coached by the former Kent and England fast bowler Graham Dilley, where Scotland feel their main strength lies. "If we get the right pitches," says Salmond, "and teams don't get away from us in the first 15 overs, Hamilton, Blain, James Brinkley and Asim Butt are all capable of taking wickets and creating pressure. If they do, hopefully a few panic buttons will be hit."

The 24-year old Hamilton, shortlisted last year for England's World Cup squad, only made himself available after the ICC ruled that playing for Scotland would not jeopardise any future outings with England. Judging by his storming start to the season with Yorkshire, it may be an oversight David Graveney and Co are already regretting.

Described by his captain as being "full of beans and a man who never sleeps", Hamilton's experience will be crucial if Scotland's bowlers are to keep their opponent's totals within reach. The 20-year old Blain must also bring his county nous to bear, while Brinkley, a brisk seamer, and Butt concentrate on keeping it tight.

If the bowling has realistic prospects of holding its own, the batting has every chance of collapsing like a badly boiled haggis, particularly if required to chase totals in excess of 240. Although Bangladesh are a known quantity who will not relish a cold dank day in Edinburgh, the main batsmen will have to contend with Australia, Pakistan, West Indies and New Zealand as well.

The world might be a smaller place, but the likes of Iain Philip, Bruce Patterson and Mike Smith, with 295 caps between them, will not have often faced the likes of Glenn McGrath, Shoaib Akhtar and Curtly Ambrose, at least not in fired-up World Cup mode.

Since the times of William Wallace, giant culls by Scottish hands have not been unknown, though their cricket is not exactly littered with examples. Admitted to the the B&H Cup in 1980, and the NatWest in 1983, Scotland have registered just three wins from 83 games - against Lancashire and Northamptonshire in the former, and Worcestershire in the latter. With a record as modest as that, even the Auld Enemy will surely wish them well.