This year’s Asia Cup may well be remembered as the moment in which Bangladesh became a force on the world stage for the first time, transitioning from also-rans to contenders as they inflicted India’s first-ever pair of Asia Cup losses – in seven tournaments – on their way to claiming the trophy.
Even away from that result however, there was reason for the supporter of the underdog to cheer as Thailand recorded their first-ever win over an ICC Full Member as they beat Sri Lanka by four wickets on the last ball of the game. Considering the relative standings of the two teams, it was a shock no less seismic than Bangladesh’s, and it certainly meant a huge deal to those involved in making it happen.
“It’s the best game I’ve been involved in and my proudest moment,” says Thailand captain Sornnarin Tippoch. “We didn’t know how it had happened when we finished. We were just thinking about playing 100 per cent, play our shots, play our game. We bowled well, we didn’t drop many catches, and when we bat we started partnership. It was very exciting.”
That cricket is a small sport in Thailand makes the feat all the more remarkable, though there is plenty of hard work ongoing to ensure it doesn’t remain a small sport much longer. “It’s a big challenge, in Thailand cricket is not that popular,” says their coach Janak Gamage, a former Sri Lankan international cricketer himself. “It’s a big challenge but we are trying very hard to get more numbers in the juniors at schools, and in universities. It will take some time because it’s not easy.”
Thailand’s captain is living proof that getting cricket into universities is an approach that works. “When I was studying at university I played softball, and the coach from the cricket association saw me and took me inside and showed me to play cricket,” says Tippoch. “The first time I played I didn’t know about cricket, I didn’t know the rules, and when I first played I lost all the games. But trying cricket, it had something, it was interesting and I continued playing.”
Still, when it comes to growing the game in a country there is little substitute for the publicity that notable victories bring. Thailand are starting to put together something of a portfolio; in addition to the win over Sri Lanka, they gained attention for the gold medal they claimed at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games, albeit against less-fancied opposition in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. “When we played in the SEA games, when we got the gold medal, Thai people knew about that,” says Tippoch.
The next achievement Thailand have their sights set on, one which would dwarf the rest of their feats, is qualifying for the World T20. They and seven other teams are due to take part in the qualifying tournament in the Netherlands which begins on Saturday 7 July, from which two will progress to the Caribbean competition in November.
Though there are more-fancied sides in the draw – giant-slaying Bangladesh may stand in Thailand’s way, while Ireland, who just lost out to the Tigers in a close-fought three-match series before this competition are in their group – there is reason to believe progression isn’t beyond them.
For a start, the team are very close-knit. “I’ve been playing for 10 years,” says Tippoch. “But some of the new girls started just one year ago. It’s not difficult to captain them. Sometimes we’re apart for a while but when the girls play cricket we come together and talk like friends, like a family, it’s easy.”
From a pure cricketing point of view their most potent weapon may well be Wongpaka Liengprasert, an off-spinner who took 5/12 in that game against Sri Lanka and was their leading wicket-taker in the SEA games, with her four-for pivotal in the final.
“She is one of our key players,” says Gamage. “[Against Sri Lanka] she bowled the right areas. She didn’t do much variation, just concentrated on line and length. We set the field on one side and she bowled the right areas.”
His words suggest a side who know their limitations, and have the skill and humility to adapt their game to suit themselves, something that may well be their biggest strength, bigger than any one individual. Tippoch willingly discusses where her side can improve. “One thing is in Thai team we have a problem with the batting. But we learned that if we bat well, we get good runs, we can win.”
It’s one of the key messages that coach has been trying to instill, the importance of rotating the strike and of trying to score runs off every delivery, even if it means risking your wicket.
“In any game I am telling them, ‘don’t be scared to play your shots’,” Gamage says. “Don’t be scared of getting out. Getting out doesn’t matter, just play your shots if the ball is there. If you’re not playing shots it’s not easy in T20. Against Sri Lanka the opening bat Naruemol Chaiwai scored 43 against a good bowling attack, and she was playing paddle sweeps, reverse sweeps, the lot. That’s what I want from them, especially in T20 against good bowling. They know if there’s a good length ball they can play a sweep, reverse sweep, paddle. If they play those shots I am happy.”
Lucky for him, here was a team willing to listen and train hard to achieve their goals. “I’m very happy because they are very keen for practice, keen to learn, they are a disciplined team. I stuck with very simple things with them, just shot selection, timing, footwork, the little basics. The important thing is with the confidence they have now, they are not afraid to play their shots. That’s the main thing, I’m happy with their confidence.”
That confidence sky-rocketed after the Sri Lanka victory, but Tippoch made sure there was no complacency. “We got confidence from that game and we went to practise hard again. We went back to do practice and more practice,” she says. “I think anything can happen in cricket, especially in 20-over cricket. We’re confident and we can go for it, we’re not too scared.”
A while after the interview has finished, Gamage comes back over. He wants one thing to be included in this article. “Just say that I am proud of them, very proud.”
He has every right to be of a team that is working hard, working for each other, and punching above their weight by doing so. If they qualify for the World T20, then maybe all of Thailand will be proud too. (Courtesy ICC)