Women’s T20 World Cup: Thailand’s remarkable rise to first global tournament

Sornnarin Tippoch cried when she left the stage after the Women’s T20 World Cup captains’ pre-tournament news conference in Australia.

It was the culmination of a 13-year journey for Tippoch and her team, who face England in their second group match on Wednesday in Canberra (04:00 GMT).

Just being at the tournament is a victory for Thailand – but they are not here to be patronised. They showed that in their opening match against West Indies.

A struggle with the bat contrasted with some sharp fielding, including a direct-hit run out that gave them their first World Cup wicket.

“The girls, and everybody in the team, have made a lot of sacrifices and put in a lot of mental and emotional effort to be here,” head coach Harshal Pathak told BBC Sport.

“We are going to compete hard, we are going to give it our best – and let’s see how far we go.”

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From 40 all out to biggest stage of all

Forty was the number that followed Thailand around for the first few years of their development.

That was the score they were bundled out for in their first international match, dismantled by Nepal as they chased 96 at the Asian Cricket Council Women’s Tournament in 2007.

Tippoch, 33, was one of the first players approached when a Thai women’s team was originally mooted.

There was no women’s domestic cricket league, with the sport mostly played by expats in the country, so players were often recruited from softball and hockey leagues.

It meant that a lot of them were young and inexperienced when they were brought into the national set-up. Batter Nattakan Chantham was just 12 when she made her debut, while Suleeporn Laomi was a track and field athlete.

“They are a great group of people. They are always smiling and you will rarely find anybody sitting alone or sitting quiet,” added Pathak.

“There’s a strong camaraderie between them. They stay together in Bangkok. It’s a great, huge family that enjoy each other’s strength and company.”

There is now a pool of more than 50 coaches across the country, ranging from advanced to beginners, but a balancing act is still needed for many of the players.

Naruemol Chaiwai, who produced the stunning run out in the opening match, told Emerging Cricket that her mum had told her to stop playing.

“I went from being a class topper to being at the bottom,” she told the website, who have supported Thailand throughout their rise to the T20 World Cup.

“The turning point was when I represented the under-19s and got a tournament fee. I gave it to my mum and we both realised that there may be an opportunity to make a living representing the country.”

Laomi joined Sydney Thunder in 2015 as an associate rookie for the Women’s Big Bash League, which is arguably the best Twenty20 competition in women’s cricket.

She spent two weeks with the Thunder, training alongside West Indian Stafanie Taylor and Australia legend Alex Blackwell, taking the first step on the path towards regular international cricket.

This work – developing players as cricketers while allowing them to pursue interests outside the sport – has paid off handsomely.

They beat Ireland, Netherlands and Papua New Guinea, arguably more established teams, to reach the World Cup, and on the way won 17 consecutive T20 matches – a record in women’s cricket.

‘They could be the heroes of Thailand’

Thailand have made the nation’s culture part of their cricket. Tippoch presented Taylor, who captains West Indies, with a gift before their first match.

At the end of each game, the Thai players stand in a line and offer a ‘Wai’ to the crowd – a greeting where the players join their palms in front of their chest and bow to all four corners of the ground.

It is a way of expressing gratitude and respect, and opposing captains often greet Tippoch with a Wai as they meet for the coin toss.

“Now, people at home have players to look up to – they could be the heroes of Thailand,” Pathak said.

“A lot of teams can take inspiration. If we can do it, any team can do it.”

The worry with Thailand – or with any team that arrives at a global tournament for the first time – is that they will become a novelty act; something for the media to coo over.

But this is a team that are serious about developing their game. They were frustrated with their batting performance against West Indies, knowing that they had left at least 40 runs out on the field in only totalling 78. Their ground fielding is arguably one of the best in the competition.

After a warm-up match against New Zealand, the two teams sat down in three groups; one for the batters, one for the bowlers and one for the fielders.

The White Ferns offered them advice, from how to rotate the strike to saving extra runs in the field. The teams then danced with a group of Thai fans, who had been watching on.

It is with this sort of advice, and this sort of experience, that the women’s game will continue to grow. For so long, England and Australia were the big hitters, with India now making up the big three. Each team at this World Cup has matchwinners. The standard of batting in particular has grown in the women’s game, with players clearing the ropes more often than before, and it ultimately makes for a more competitive World Cup.

Some might have looked on Thailand as a novelty. But when this tournament finishes, they will remember the fielding, and the bowling, and especially the love and joy that they bring to their cricket.

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