Thailand embrace 'dreams' and destiny

Sornnarin Tippoch poses with a koala AFP

"Long-on, long-off, Gade. Long-on, long-off…" rings out a reminder from Thailand's captain Sornnarin Tippoch, who gestures at her batting partner Chanida Sutthiruang, to play in the 'v' more often. For the best part of this nets session at the WACA, Thailand's first one at the venue that hosts their T20 World Cup debut on Saturday, Sutthiruang, the 2019 ICC Emerging Cricketer of the Year, has needed little reminding. To Tippoch's suggestion, though, she pays heed almost instantly as the next two balls are driven deftly down the ground. Within the 'v'.

The first of those two deliveries was bowled by Ireland's Lara Maritz. In September last year, Maritz, with bat in hand, stood as the final barrier between Thailand and their entry into the semi-final of the T20 World Cup Qualifier. Ireland needed three off the last ball, but Maritz, on strike, would end up being stumped and Thailand one step closer to qualifying for the 2020 T20 World Cup.

"They were the better team on the day, but this team looks even better than the one we played in the Qualifier," Maritz, who moved to Australia after the Qualifier, says. She has been in touch with many of the Thai players since the tournament. "Something that looks quite different is the intent of their batters. They've always been a very nice bunch, but I don't think I've seen them this confident. It just shows how hungry they are to do well at such a big stage."

Maritz's assessment is testament to the focus that runs within the Thailand team, almost imperceptibly. Such has been the enormity of the elation, warranted in every way, around their impending debut alone, that unlike the build-up around most of their opponents in this ten-team World Cup, their quiet determination has drawn little commentary. Their tunnel vision, though, is the very virtue that has brought them to threshold of the biggest moment in their career, a watershed moment in the women's game.

"Looking at us, maybe Singapore or Malaysia or Myanmar will think, 'Yes, even we can do it.' That's how cricket in our region will grow, and that's how the sport will grow, and that will be an achievement for us when they get there" Shan Kader, the Cricket Association of Thailand Development Manager

"We have one goal: to play good cricket and play fearlessly as we have played through the recent past," Tippoch would tell ESPNcricinfo the previous night, two hours after landing in Perth from Adelaide, where they played their only warm-up, against New Zealand.

"We are not looking at England as England or, say West Indies as [former] world champions; we are just looking at them as opponents we want to win matches against," Tippoch adds. "If we get a good result, it's great, if we don't, it's experience. We will keep growing, keep dreaming. We will work hard to go to New Zealand [next year, for the 50-over World Cup]. Our hard work doesn't stop here.

A bowling allrounder, Tippoch, 33, has led Thailand in all of their 35 T20Is, and many more before the ICC awarded international status to T20s between Member nations across men's and women's cricket, the Member women's teams getting international status at the 2018 Asia Cup. Her first appearance for Thailand, though, came way back in 2007, in an Asian Cricket Council tournament, but under vastly different circumstances.

"Two months of practice," she says, smiling. "That was all the experience I had of playing cricket going into that 2007 tournament. I was studying sports science at the university at the time, but wanted to seriously try out cricket. So, I played it and we lost the tournament, but I was convinced I don't want to play cricket for just two months. I knew I had to learn more, grow more."

Meanwhile, the lead-up to this T20 World Cup has seen many Thailand players engage in centre-wicket practice, match simulation, face quick bowlers in the range of 130kph on a tour of Pune, the home town of their head coach Harshal Pathak, last November and then spend time in Brisbane during December-January to acclimatise and hone their skills further.

The packed schedule since the Qualifiers, says Tippoch, has brought the players positives aplenty. For players like Sutthiruang, some of those benefits go even beyond simple runs and wickets. "I come from a sports background," she says. Her sister and aunt were sprinters while her father played football and sepak takraw - a variant of foot volleyball - locally. "But my family didn't quite know what cricket is until we qualified for the World Cup. Now that we are here they want to know more about the game, understand what we do, what a World Cup means."

Both Tippoch and Sutthiruang, much like the majority of Thailand's 15-member squad, hail from families with a farming background, often having to live hand to mouth due to dwindling growth in the sector or inclement harvesting conditions. Such financial hardships with the players' community have often directly led to what, Shan Kader, the Cricket Association of Thailand (CAT) Development Manager, calls "loss of assets".

"At one point, we found ourselves in a position where we started losing a lot of players because they'd simply choose to give up the sport," Kader says. "It takes about 10 years to become a good cricketer in Thailand. We pick and train many girls through the university level, so at that point when they are faced with having to decide whether cricket is a viable career option financially, many of them go away from the game."

To retain talent, the Thailand board started offering contracts to its women's players in 2008-09. Tippoch and Nattaya Boochatham, both now senior members in the side, became the first two beneficiaries. By the end of 2019, the figure had peaked to 11, all of the contracted players subsequently making the World Cup squad.

According to Kader, the retention of promising players lay at the heart of Thailand's journey to the World Cup.

"We have done it with a full ethnic side; that's a big, big achievement," Kader, who hopes Thailand's qualification might inspire other South-east Asian countries to support home-grown talent, says. "Looking at us, maybe Singapore or Malaysia or Myanmar will think, 'Yes, even we can do it.' That's how cricket in our region will grow, and that's how the sport will grow, and that will be an achievement for us when they get there."

For now, though, Thailand's focus remains on matching potential with performance on the field of play.

"I dream of playing in the WBBL, and even in the Women's IPL, when it picks up," Sutthiruang says. "There's always talk in the team about playing in such leagues. Our coach says at least five players from our squad have the talent to play in overseas leagues. If we can perform well at the World Cup, some of us can be snapped up by the franchises, and that would be a great chapter in our journey."