There was a moment, about an hour into their World Cup, when everything seemed to be going wrong for Scotland. Playing Bangladesh, ranked No 6 in the world and overwhelming favourites to dominate the opening group stage, the Scots first lost the toss and then started losing wickets. From 44 for one at the end of the seventh over, in the following 27 balls they scored nine runs, lost five batters, and the prospect of them becoming the story of the first week seemed completely outlandish.
“We were pretty worried in the dressing room,” says Matthew Cross, the wicketkeeper-batsman who was the first of those quickfire five wickets to fall. “The top order hadn’t performed as we’d hoped and we got ourselves into a difficult position, but then Chris Greaves came out and played brilliantly, and when we put some pressure on their bowlers started to make mistakes and we found we could score a bit more freely.”
Greaves, one of the few players in Scotland’s squad not on a central contract, heaved his side to a vaguely competitive total of 140, and what followed was a remarkable victory that served as a springboard to propel the Scots to three wins in the first round and into the Super 12s, which they start with a game against Afghanistan on Monday.
Scotland transferred from Oman to Dubai on Friday night, and came down for breakfast on Saturday morning to find the Ireland squad in the lobby, checking out and heading home. It was a reminder of the slender margins that separate success and failure, not that this is a squad that required one.
The long path that has led to this point often strayed much closer to humiliation than heroism. The day after the Bangladesh match was the second anniversary of Scotland’s first game of the qualifying tournament that brought them here, another shock result but with the Scots this time on the receiving end of a humbling by Singapore. They eventually scraped through that competition but there will be no such worries for the next event, with their success here having already earned them a place at the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia.
“That’s kind of gone under the radar a little bit in all the talk about us reaching the Super 12s,” Cross says. “It’s absolutely massive for Scottish cricket, and it’s just as well because the next qualifiers are going to be a nightmare – the quality just keeps getting better.
“That’s the thing I don’t like about the format for this competition, and I hope they change it for Australia. Whoever comes through qualifying will have earned the right to play in the World Cup against the biggest teams in the world, not in a first group stage that’s basically looked upon as another qualifying event. The quality is definitely there – the associate nations keep getting stronger and that needs to be rewarded.”
The 2019 qualifiers were co-hosted by Dubai and Abu Dhabi, who after the tournament was moved from India have also become, along with Sharjah and Oman, the venue for the finals. The UAE has gradually become the destination of choice for roaming international events, to such an extent that over the last five years the Scots have played as many one-day internationals in Dubai as in Scotland (nine), and more than twice as many T20s (12, compared with five at home). Cross, who at 29 is playing in his second World Cup, was involved in all of those matches.
“The nature of associate cricket these days is that we all spend a lot of time out here,” says Cross. “We know the conditions by now, and we’ve been here long enough that we’re starting to feel acclimatised. But in Scotland we’re used to maximum temperatures of maybe 23C in the summer and in Oman at times it was pushing 40C. As wicketkeeper I’m standing there in long sleeves, with gloves on as well as my helmet and I’m just out there cooking. It’s not as bad at night, but the daytime matches I just cook.”
The format does mean that a fully match-sharpened Scotland are coming up against teams who are just starting their tournament – and Afghanistan’s world ranking is two places lower than Bangladesh. “We’ve beaten Afghanistan before [in ODIs], and we beat [second opponents] Namibia in the warm-ups, so we go into it without any fear,” Cross says. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but there’s a chance that we could go on and do something really special.”
There is a relief just to be doing, so long after their qualification and after enduring 18 months entirely bereft of international action. Showpiece home matches against Australia and New Zealand were among the fixtures shelved because of the pandemic, and Zimbabwe’s visit to Edinburgh for a three-game T20 series in September represented Scotland’s first competitive matches in any format since 2019. In that time the most significant sport Cross saw was in his own home, with a series of golf/cricket/table-tennis crossover trick shot videos that earned a cult following online and inspired copycat efforts from the former South Africa bowler Shaun Pollock.
“I was so bored,” Cross says. “My housemate had gone home and it was just me on my own, day after day. It was fun for a while, there was a bit of a buzz around them especially when Shaun got involved.” He brought a couple of golf clubs and some table-tennis balls to the World Cup, in case he needed something to take his mind off the cricket. They haven’t made it out of the bag.