Women cricketers do Thailand proud
There was a significant moment for Thai sport last week in the most unlikely of settings -- Forthill Cricket Club in Dundee, on the north bank of the Firth of Tay in Scotland.
Thailand's women's cricket team made history by qualifying for next year's T20 World Cup for the first time after comfortably defeating Papua New Guinea in the semi-finals of the qualifiers.
The Thai squad will join the elite women's teams in Australia for the 2020 finals beginning in February.
Thai captain Sornnarong Thipoch, from Buri Ram, was understandably overjoyed at her team's unexpected success. "We are excited and emotionally overwhelmed," she said immediately after the victorious semi-final. "Nobody gave us a chance, " she told ESPNcricinfo. "The dream has finally become a reality."
This was no fluky achievement, but the result of decades of hard work by the players and the unheralded coaches and backers without whom this could never have happened.
It is all the more amazing as you consider this has all taken place in a country in which cricket was basically an alien word, either unheard of, or regarded as a sport that Thais simply didn't play.
In recent years all their efforts have been rewarded as they watched the Thai team improve match after match in their ultimately successful target to achieve international standards.
In the past couple of years they have gone from strength to strength and particularly blossomed this year, winning the seven-team Asian qualifying tournament held in Thailand early on.
They served out a warning in a quadrangular event in the Netherlands last month with victories over the hosts, along with "heavyweights" Scotland and Ireland, although Scotland did eventually put an end to Thailand's amazing run of 17 consecutive international victories.
In the final qualifiers held in Scotland, the Thai team beat Ireland, the Netherlands and Namibia before defeating Papua New Guinea to clinch their World Cup place. Although they were well-beaten by the strong Bangladesh side in the final, it didn't really matter. They had achieved their aim of going to Australia early next year.
In addition to the experienced Sornnarong, Thailand's strength has been a result of some excellent fielding combined with top class swing bowling from Chanida Sutthiruang, and a match-winning leg spinner in Suleeporn Laomi, who twice won the Player of the Match award in the qualifying tournament.
The Thai team not only impressed the Scottish crowds with their cricket, but also their overall demeanour. After every game they would take a respectful bow to the field on which they had played, which went down well with the locals."We play in the spirit of the game," said Sornnarong. "Just culturally, what we do by being respectful, influences the style of cricket we play."
Thailand's current coach, India's Harshal Pathak, told ESPNcricinfo that his team "are a talented bunch". He said that when he took over the squad, the fielding and bowling was already of a high standard. However the batting needed some work and it's still an ongoing process.
To really appreciate what these ladies have achieved you have to go back many years. I remember seeing a Thai ladies team playing just for fun in the Chiang Mai International Sixes at the Gymkhana Club ground back in the late 1990s. In fact it was a girls team rather than a ladies side with several of those playing being schoolgirls only in their mid-teens.
Many of them came from Cholaprathan School in Luang Nua village in Chiang Mai. The aforementioned leg-spinner Suleeporn is from that school as is another member of the squad, Phanitta Maya.
Ten of the girls from this school are currently in Bangkok training to get picked for the Under 19 national squad. Although the Cricket Association of Thailand provides them with free board and lodging, for daily expenses the girls have to be supported by local cricket enthusiasts out of their own pocket.
Many of them were impoverished hilltribe children who had never seen a cricket bat before, or like many Thais, had never even heard of cricket. It simply wasn't in the Thai culture, primarily because there was no colonial influence.
In those early days, encouraged by expats and a few Thais, who were familiar with cricket, the ladies played as the Thai Angels against the more experienced Chiang Mai Chassis represented by the local foreign contingent. Each year the Thai team grew stronger. Their fielding was always good, and their bowling improved once they got the hang of it. They also received great support from visiting Australian enthusiasts who provided a lot of cricket equipment.
The current T20 squad will find it tough in Australia of course as they will be up against the best players in the world. But it should be a wonderful experience and they have the talent to maybe create the occasional upset.
Everyone involved with the Thai ladies team should be congratulated and we must not forget the early pioneers who encouraged them to take up the game more than two decades ago.