Scottish cricketers ready for political football

Should England lose at Aberdeen on Friday the defeat will be seized on by those involved in the independence debate
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The Independent Online

England travel to the world's most northerly one-day international venue, Mannofield, on Friday to play Scotland at a time when the host nation resembles a batsman caught in mid-crease, unsure whether to say "yes" or "no" and wondering if "wait" might have been a better call.

The residents of Scotland go to the polls in four months' time to vote in an independence referendum. Their simple choice is Yes or No but the consensus of the intelligentsia is that the Yes campaign will fall short of a majority but carry forward enough momentum for the nationalists to try again in a few years' time. Recent polls, however, have indicated that Yes is making up ground on No and unless Alex Salmond drops the ball, it looks sure to be a close-run thing.

Scotland v England in Aberdeen might also be an interesting contest. Although the result in any isolated one-day international is largely immaterial, a win for the hosts would make the news, as well as making cricket history.

England have never lost to Scotland, but only one of their three encounters has been completed. England have been embarrassed three times at the hands of Ireland and the Netherlands, so it would not push the Premier League off the back pages if they were to be made to look silly again. But it might be quirky enough to attract attention up front. The real story of a Scottish upset would be its timing, and its potential to be exploited as political fuel.

The Commonwealth Games are in Glasgow this summer, and that is where referendum point-scoring is expected to go into overdrive. Scots have traditionally bought into the Games more than their neighbours in England and Wales, and the sight of the Saltire being raised above the St George's Cross will inevitably be used as a symbol of Caledonian self-sufficiency, even if it simultaneously makes a powerful argument for the Union status quo.

Many of Scotland's greatest Olympians, Sir Chris Hoy and Katherine Grainger CBE included, have trained in England because the facilities were better than they could get at home. The chief poster boy and poster girl for Glasgow 2014 are Michael Jamieson, the London Olympics silver-medal-winning swimmer, and the hurdler Eilidh Child. Both are based in Bath.

There have been calls for a moratorium on sport being used as a political football during the Games, but even if most Scottish athletes have their answers to referendum questions carefully prepared, there are bound to be a few who break rank. Last September Imogen Bankier, the 2011 World Badminton Championship silver medallist, echoed Hoy's view that membership of Team GB has been good for Scottish athletes and they should count their blessings, as well as their medals, before advocating change.

Likewise, the Scottish cricket team is stronger for the exposure players have had by linking up with professional counties. But that does not occur because of the Union. Even if some of the players covet independence, they know it would have little bearing on their cricket careers, no impact on the cross-border movement that allows them to ply their trade in the shires and return for the key internationals and ICC tournaments.

Independence hasn't stopped Irish cricketers from making the most of this double life, and Cricket Ireland, like Cricket Scotland, has been able to create a full-time environment for a clutch of players… while remaining unable to stop the best ones leaving. Scotland has had a cricket team for 149 years and it could be another 149 before that situation changes, no matter who owns the North Sea.

The 11 players they pick for the Royal London International would be the same 11 they would pick if Scotland were independent, and some of them would be based in Scotland and others in England. A shock result on Friday should have no material bearing on the referendum. But the great fear of No campaigners is that votes will be cast in September with hearts rather than heads.

This is to be the first match of Peter Moores' second stint in charge of England, but it might feel like he is raking over old ground because he was the coach when the two nations met for the first time in 2008 (Kevin Pietersen was the captain). This time Scotland also have a new coach, the former New Zealand all-rounder Grant Bradburn, but he will only have a watching brief on Friday as his tenure does not begin until 1 July.

Scotland won every match at the recent World Cup Qualifier and, with the help of coaching consultant Paul Collingwood, unearthed a couple of warriors in Calum MacLeod and Preston Mommsen. Unlike England they go into the match with momentum, confidence and motivation, so opportunity knocks.

Whatever happens at Mannofield, the two teams will be reunited in February in Christchurch, at the World Cup. On that occasion, though, there won't be very much to talk about except cricket.