When Thailand try to force their way back to Abu Dhabi’s biggest cricketing stage this week, their quest will be led by a player who only came to the sport by accident.
Ranked 16th in the ICC International T20 Rankings, Natthakan Chantham will be the top-ranked hitter in the Women’s T20 World Cup qualifier.
The eight-team competition in the capital carries with it two places for the main even in South Africa next year.
It may seem odd to those used to traditional cricket that Thailand are among the favorites to do so. They are the second highest ranked team in the event, behind Bangladesh.
It is curious how Chantham became one of the leading figures in the remarkable rise of the Thai women’s cricket team.
“I had to choose a club at school,” Chantham recalled of herself at age eight. “I wanted to choose a film club, but it was already full. The cricket was still empty, so it was really by accident that I chose the cricket. I didn’t know anything about that. So my English teacher became my first coach.
His teacher was a Thai national who learned the basics of cricket while studying English.
“We started playing with a plastic ball,” Chantham said. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about cricket.
“When I grew up a bit, I discovered that cricket was played with a leather ball. It was a surprise to me. Catching the leather ball was difficult. There was no mercy.
Since the advent of its women’s program in 2007, the Thai national team has progressed rapidly. They made their first appearance on the world stage at the last T20 World Cup two years ago.
They might have done the same thing in the 50+ version, if a series of unfortunate events – including the appearance of the Omicron variant – hadn’t been denied them.
Despite their successes, Chantham says the sport hasn’t caught on far.
“People don’t know cricket,” said Chantham, 26. “When I go to the market and I wear a Thai jersey, people ask me: ‘What sport do you play?’
“I say cricket, and they say, ‘What is cricket? I explain that in cricket we have to use a flat bat and I explain the ball.
“So they say, ‘Ah, I know, it’s hockey!’ Then I’m done. No one in Thailand knows much about cricket.
Thailand received a warning shot in a quadrangle series in Dubai last week when they lost to Zimbabwe, but Naruemol Chaiwai, their captain, is fearless.
“Our team’s goal is to win the tournament,” she said. “We are a strong unit and have great teamwork and everyone will contribute to our success.
“For the past three months, we have traveled to India to train. We had the chance to play games with state teams and academy teams. We faced a variety of bowlers and played on different types of terrain which will help us adapt quickly and determine our options.
“Covid-19 has kept us away from international competition. Coming back to play in this tournament is quite exciting for me.
The United Arab Emirates have suffered defeats over the past week but had reason to celebrate in their warm-up game against Bangladesh when Esha Oza returned.
The power hitter had suffered a facial injury in practice during the quadrangular series.
“We have a lot of potential and talented players on board and on any given day anyone could be a game-winner for us,” said Chaya Mughal, the United Arab Emirates captain.
“We prepared and worked very hard despite the extremely hot weather. Our training at the outside center wicket and the stimulation of games is something that really helps us at the moment.
“Clearing the boundary ropes is something we have been focusing on and will use in the next games.
“Playing at this level in itself is a challenge given that the teams we are going to face have already played in the World Cup and we are very well prepared for that. We don’t put any pressure on ourselves and only play one match at the time.
Updated: September 18, 2022, 06:29