It is January 2009. The mood at the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club is buoyant. The Thailand men’s national team has just beaten the Maldives by six runs in the opening fixture of the ACC Challenge Trophy. It is a crucial victory because it increases the likelihood of a place in the finals and with it a slot in the World Cricket League.
Twenty-two year old Sornnarin Tippoch is at the ground. She mingles with the players and staff (many of whom are still with the Cricket Association of Thailand today), congratulating them on a pulsating win.
Not many people know or recognise her, but this is to be expected. These are still the days of yore; a time when Thailand’s expat-dominated men’s team offers the best chance of success in the little leagues of the emerging cricket world. Thailand’s women’s cricket team has only played twice and is yet to steal the limelight.
How times have changed.
Today Tippoch is arguably the most successful cricketer in Thai cricketing history, one of the longest serving captains in Associate cricket, and a mentor to younger female and male cricketers across the country. The now-seasoned Thai women’s team is ranked 12th in the World T20I rankings and has just come off a world record seventeen-match winning streak.
Expectations for the upcoming World T20 Qualifier are high. Thailand’s team manager Shan Kader was unequivocal when speaking to Emerging Cricket earlier this week about his side’s chances. “We look forward to winning the tournament,” he said. Kader’s prognostications are far from fanciful. Thailand’s world record winning streak included three wins against the UAE, two against Ireland and the Netherlands, and one each against Scotland and Nepal.
These are quality sides that possess, for the most part, richer boards, better facilities and a greater volume of domestic cricket, at least in their men’s programs. Across the globe, the more successful Associate-level women’s teams come from environments in which there is already strong investment, relative success in the men’s game, and where there is something of a local cricketing culture. Nepal, UAE, Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Zimbabwe, and PNG are cases in point.
Thailand bucks this trend. The country’s success in the women’s game has come in spite of the absence of money, a domestic competition, a depth of players to choose from and any real cricketing culture. This realisation makes the team’s success over many years even more remarkable.
The Asian Cricket Council (ACC) first organised a multi-team women’s tournament in 2007. Eight teams took the field in Malaysia across two groups. Thailand finished a dismal last in their group behind Nepal, Hong Kong and Malaysia, scoring 40 all out in each of their three games.
At the end of the last match, Kader who was also team manager in that tournament said:
“The team surprise me sometimes with how much they can do. There’s enough raw material there to beat Malaysia in the future. Today they were just too good for us.”
Most of the team had been plucked out of domestic softball leagues. The basics of sporting prowess such as hand-eye coordination came naturally, but there was not much more. It was a baptism of fire for a group of girls who were new to the game and lacked any exposure to competitive cricket.
At the ACC U-19 Women’s Championship in 2008, Thailand first showed their competitive mettle at the Asian level. There were thumping victories against Qatar and Oman, but the real achievement was two close wins against a more experienced Hong Kong side and a 3rd place finish. The tournament also marked the debuts of Nattakan Chantham (12 years old at the time) and Naruemol Chaiwai. Both are mainstays of Thailand’s batting today.
The performance was a clear improvement from the senior team’s rookie performance the year before and an early indicator of the work being done off the field to improve results on it. One key piece of this off-field puzzle was the government’s decision to recognise cricket and the Cricket Association of Thailand (CAT) in 2008. The move enabled the inclusion of the sport in the government-funded National Games and the National Youth Games, and provided the impetus for a strategy focused on developing local talent rather than relying on expats.
Then, in late 2010, the Cricket Association of Thailand (CAT) unveiled the Terdthai Cricket Ground (TCG), which purpose-built to serve as the home of cricket in the country. It came with turf wickets and nets. Not only could the Thai women now train regularly on turf, Thailand could now host ACC and ICC tournaments in Bangkok with minimal fuss.
This was also the time when the nucleus of today’s Thai side was forming –Tippoch had been captain since 2008 while Chaiwai, Chantham, and Nattaya Boochatham were now regulars in the national side. Bowlers Chanida Suttiruang, Suleeporn Laomi, and Wongpaka Liengprasert were starting to dominate proceedings at the U-19 level.
With the foundations in place, the stage was set for bigger things.
Coincidentally, between 2010 and 2013, the volume of women’s cricket in the Asian region exploded. Teams like Thailand, Hong Kong, Nepal, and China benefited immensely from regular exposure to international cricket. Women’s cricket debuted at the Asian Games in 2010 bringing much needed financial support from government authorities across the region. The 2012 Women’s Asia Cup also provided a first opportunity for these sides to test themselves against the Test-playing countries.
Outside the big leagues, these four teams began to pull away from the rest, tussling for honours, tournament after tournament. For Thailand, close losses to Hong Kong (2009) and China (2010), coupled with a first win against Nepal (2011) epitomised a lack of consistency and experience in pressure situations. A first title still evaded the Thai girls.
The year that mattered
2013 was a groundbreaking year. For the first time ever, the winners of the ACC Women’s Championship 2013 would progress to the Global T20 World Cup (then World T20) Qualifiers. China beat Thailand by 47 runs in the group stages. The loss meant that Thailand would have to overcome Nepal in the semis and likely face China again for a place in Ireland. The Thai girls responded in clinical fashion, crushing favourites Nepal by 7 wickets and then beating China by 17 runs to take their first senior title. Tippoch, who also scored a maiden century against Singapore, was named player of the tournament and Suttiruang the bowler of the tournament.
A place in the global qualifier also meant more funding, exposure to teams and climates outside Asia, and the first steps to professionalism. Centralised training camps spanning eight to ten weeks, coupled with high performance fixtures against opponents such as the Karnataka State women’s team were now growing feature of Thailand’s preparation for major tournaments. In the lead up to Ireland 2013, the women played matches against several senior men’s club teams. ACC Development Officer Venkatapathi Raju also spent time advising the side at a closed camp in Chiang Mai. His assessment was that the side “are in good shape, have a good attitude, and will impress a lot of people.”
Impress they did, beating the Netherlands by six wickets, Canada by 13 runs and Zimbabwe by 25 runs to win the Plate competition at the event.
At the same time, the ACC and CAT put in place further foundations for continued growth. For example, Tippoch and Boochatham were sent to Sri Lanka to play for Palink Sports Club in the national domestic one-day competition, and also given employment with CAT as accredited ACC Level II coaches.
Associate cricket is littered with fairy tales that do not last, and others that morph into enduring realities. Thailand’s women fall into the latter category. Rather than falter, they reached new heights between 2014 and 2019. This upward trajectory was a result of astute off-field decisions, favourable circumstances, and a bit of luck.
On the field, Thailand established their dominance over Asian Associate opposition, albeit with a couple of nail-biting wins against a vastly improved Nepal and a resurgent United Arab Emirates (UAE). The results at successive global T20 and 50-Over world cup qualifiers in 2015, 2017 and 2018 were far less impressive. In all of these tournaments, Thailand lost every single group match, failing to acclimatise to conditions early in tournaments and faltering far too often with the bat.
In between, a near perfect performance at the South East Asian (SEA) Games brought gold medals and national media attention. Incidental opportunities, such as Suleeporn Laomi’s Associate Rookie deal in the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) with the Adelaide Strikers also came to the fore.
Importantly, the Thai girls also won many hearts for style and manner that incorporated respect towards opposition players, umpires, and the game itself. For example, in February 2017, India’s Veda Krishnamurthy was so moved to see the Thais’ walk to the sightscreen and bow down together toward the ground that she joined them. When asked about it later, Captain Tippoch said, “we want to say thank you to cricket, thank you to the ground, and to the facilities…it is because of cricket that we have come so far to represent our country in an international competition.” It was a gesture and comment that epitomised maturity, understanding of the public image that they wanted to project, and self-awareness of their place within a much larger sporting tradition.
In 2016, CAT appointed its first full-time foreign coach for the women’s team. That Janak Gamage, a former Sri Lankan ODI-cricketer and Bangladesh women’s team coach, took on the challenge was an important marker of the team’s potential. Gamage presided over that victory against Sri Lanka at the Women’s T20 Asia Cup 2018. In an interview with the ICC after the Gamage wanted “just one thing to be included in this article…just say that I am very proud of them, very proud.” Reminiscing from the Netherlands this week, Kader implies that the Sri Lanka game was yet another turning point in this story.
“It was one of the most memorable days for Thailand cricket…they [the Thai team] played with so much character and aggression, it was quite a match…I think it goes to show that there is enough skill in our team to take on a lot of top teams in the world…it is just a matter of consistency, trying to replicate such performances day in and day out, and creating that belief, mentality, and culture.”
Project World Cup
In the aftermath of the Sri Lanka win, CAT went back to the drawing board in a bid to target qualification for the T20 and 50-Over world cups.
In January 2019, CAT organised the Thailand Women’s T20 Smash featuring eight other Asian teams and a Thailand-A team that beat China by five wickets. The tournament boosted Thailand’s T20I ranking and provided useful practice ahead of the 2019 ICC Women’s Qualifier Asia, which Thailand also won.
According to Kader, planning for the global qualifiers began with the T20 Smash and has continued ever since. He says:
“In May we were in Pune for a month-long high performance tour in which we played competitive matches against local sides. We were back in Pondicherry again in July for a second high performance tour, after which we flew straight to the Netherlands for a camp and the Euro-Asia Quadrangular Tournament featuring Ireland, Scotland, and Netherlands.”
As a result, the players have been practising on turf six days a week, playing two to three competitive fixtures a week, and undergoing a mix of strength, game-situation, and tactical training. Harshal Pathak, the former personal coach of Harmanpreet Singh, and assistant at the Maharashtra Ranji side, is now at the helm, and Kader says that his presence has been vital to the side’s continued improvement, especially in its batting. CAT has also invested in a squadron of contracted backroom staff to assist players with fitness, dietary requirements, and injury management.
There is an additional focus on building squad depth, fostering competition, and building a professional environment across the eco-system. The formation of an A-team is one example, but Kader also tells me talented U-15, U-17, and U-19 players are given scholarships to train at the CAT academy in Bangkok and compete their education at affiliated schools. Several players are now contracted.
The results speak for themselves. The nature of the recent against Ireland and Scotland on European demonstrated a new level of consistency with the ball and a settled batting line up that is less top-heavy. Underpinning this is the belief and winning mentality that Kader talks about. “Competition will be tough, but there is a certain buzz in the team which is very infectious and everyone feels this is the year,” he says. Of course it helps that Tippoch, Chantham, Chaiwai, Suttiruang, Laomi, and others are now well-travelled veterans of the game, and have played in Europe on more than one occasion.
But it is precisely this unique ability to keep talented players in the game and foster continuous improvement over more than a decade that explains why these Thai women are poised to make history.