Cricket: Seven days in dream land

The debutants: Scotland put on brave show while fair city revels in occasion
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The Independent Online
GEORGE SALMOND, who captains Scotland, speaks of his team's strategy as a calculated risk. His World Cup debutants could either be positive - "choose the right ball and blast it" - or they could grind out a score of 130 for 5 in their 50 overs. The team solemnly discussed the choice before their two games last week against Australia and Pakistan - "the two best teams in the competition", according to Wasim Akram. It was a choice between being bloody, bold and resolute, or wimps. Not much of a choice really.

"You always run the risk of being bowled out for a low score, but better that than just getting 130 odd for four or five wickets," says the skipper, a smiling, moon-faced, primary school teacher who leads by example. Although the Scots lost both games - by six wickets and 93 runs - Salmond was confident his risk had paid off: "I don't think we disgraced ourselves in any shape or form."

But tomorrow all bets are off. Scotland play Bangladesh, another of the tournament's minnows, and Salmond is "desperate" to win. If that means abandoning last week's adventurous streak, so be it. The Scots have begun to take international cricket seriously, and when the cup ends for them, they will have to start to think whether they want to try to compete with the top teams or to sink back among the also-rans.

At the age of 40, Iain Phillip is the oldest player in the Cup. He has more than 100 caps, and he has watched the growing commitment of the Scottish team. He remembers the 80s, when a batsman who had scored 35 or so would blithely assume his innings would guarantee another few caps. Phillip, who plays in the other Perth in the winter, and has the highest score by a Scotland player (234 against MCC in 1991), believes he is a better player wearing a Scotland cap. It is not a matter of nationalism ("politics is utterly irrelevant to us"); more the inspiration of national pride. "There's a lot of pride in that dressing room," said Salmond after the defeat by Pakistan.

The roller-coaster ride against Pakistan at the Riverside ground in Chester- le-Street on Thursday was like nothing else this team have ever experienced. At Worcester against Australia Salmond had lost the toss and Scotland had to bat first, making a respectable 181 for 7. Salmond led from the front: "I know, of my 31, only two or three came off the middle. It was a case of taking them on a bit."

On Thursday, Salmond had won the toss and asked Pakistan to bat. The ball was moving "abnormally" (so said Wasim Akram). Wides were an inevitable consequence. Forgiveable perhaps, but there was an unpardonable spate of no balls. In the 25th over Pakistan were 88 for 4, and exactly half the runs were extras. When Inzaman-ul-Haq was out for 12 after struggling for 15 overs, Pakistan were 92 for 5. "That's when your dreams start to get on a roll," says Salmond.

The dream faded when Pakistan scored 105 in the last 10 overs. Wasim spoke generously of the aggression of the Scots in the field - but only until the 40th over. "I think in the end experience worked in our favour. We had wickets in hand and got runs in the end." The dream was ended by Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim. I asked Phillip what it was like facing Shoaib, who is now known as the world's fastest bowler.

"It was no different really," he replied.

"No different?"

"Well, faster," said Phillip, like a character in a Pinter play.

Shoaib was faster than Scotland's batsmen had ever known; they were mesmerised and before long they were 19 for 5. Their reputation was salvaged by the only true professional cricketer on the team.

Gavin Hamilton looks like an athlete; 6ft 1in, moves fluidly, right-hand bat, fast medium bowler, 24-years-old. He had bowled short at Worcester, but was top scorer with 34, having batted extravagantly. Against Pakistan his length was better. He did concede 11 extras, but took 2 for 36 in 10 overs, and considered himself unlucky not to have Wasim lbw, first ball. When he batted, Hamilton was more circumspect to begin with, playing patiently to save Scotland from the ignominy of a score around 50, but that done, he recaptured his rural style, carting the bowling all over the field, scoring three sixes in his 76, scored out of 167.

Though Hamilton was born in Scotland, his accent is English. He joined Yorkshire when he was 16. He plays for Scotland only because he was not picked by England. (He was named in England's long list of 30 for the World Cup.) Choosing England is not just a matter of playing standards. Scottish cricket could not provide him with the income he expects from cricket. The Scottish Board are so short of funds that they had to apply for Lottery money to compensate employers who granted leave to players for the Cup.

Steve Waugh judged that Scotland were as good as Kenya and Bangladesh, both of whom aspire to regular one-day international status. "They've just got to get games against tough opposition. The experience they had today against professional players in a pressure atmosphere is worth a year playing their normal cricket." Phillip was able to identity one particular lesson: Mark Waugh's ability to drop the ball in the block hole and steal a quick single.

The black hole in Scottish cricket is that those who can earn a living from the game will play county cricket and aspire to the England team - like Hamilton. Until that changes, these talented amateurs will not get many chances against tough opposition. No matter what the result tomorrow, Bangladesh seem more likely contenders for a place on the one- day international circuit.

In which case, they should stick to the strategy and take the calculated risk by choosing the right ball and blasting it.