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Sport No one-hit wonders: How Thailand defied odds to qualify for World Cup

04:31  18 january  2020
04:31  18 january  2020 Source:   smh.com.au

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a group of people posing for a photo: Thailand claimed one of just two qualifying spots for the T20 World Cup.© Alex Ellinghausen Thailand claimed one of just two qualifying spots for the T20 World Cup.

When Shan Kader was assigned the task of getting together a world-class Thai women's cricket team in 2007, he would tell his players they were simply "born in the wrong country" as a way of inspiring them. Just 12 years later, he no longer has to use that line.

Last year, Thailand did the impossible by claiming a spot in the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup, a remarkable achievement considering the growth of cricket in the nation.

"I would say [to the team] if you were born in Australia, born in England, born in India, you would be playing for an elite team, you'd be playing in the Big Bash, you might be representing that country," he said. "But I also said, let's do something about it."

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And that they did. Hosted this year by Australia, the eight top-ranked teams from the 2018 World Cup are automatically entered in the 10-team competition, leaving just two spots up for grabs through a qualifying tournament.

The side managed to beat Papua New Guinea in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup qualifier to claim a spot, with Bangladesh also progressing.  The squad is currently travelling around Australia in preparation.

a cricket player during a game: Nannapat Khnocharernkai plays for Thailand against the ACT Meteors at Manuka Oval in December.© Alex Ellinghausen Nannapat Khnocharernkai plays for Thailand against the ACT Meteors at Manuka Oval in December.

Most of the women on the World Cup squad come from a softball background and were poached in an effort by the Cricket Association of Thailand to evolve the game.

Captain Sornnarin Tippoch was just 21 when her talents were noticed while playing softball for fun as she completed a degree in sports science.

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Now 33, Tippoch said qualifying for the world stage was a big opportunity for the women's team to bring local audiences and sponsors into their game.

"This is all due to a lot of hard work and a lot of commitment throughout the years," she said. "It is not a success story that happened overnight."

At the end of each match, the women line up and bow to the audience as a sign of "respect" to those whole have made the effort "to come out to watch us". It is also to pay respect to the grounds staff, umpires and everyone who had facilitated the game.

a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Naruemol Chaiwai gets on the front foot against the ACT Meteors.© Alex Ellinghausen Naruemol Chaiwai gets on the front foot against the ACT Meteors.

For some of the women, the World Cup is a lot more serious than just a game of cricket. For some, it is a chance to lift their families from poverty.

Kader said he has seen girls added to the development squad who were living on just one meal a day before playing cricket.

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Many are poached from hill tribes, where Christian sponsors often provide children with an education.

"To find these girls who are really good at sport, and who are really coordinated, to see their lives change from the hills, to now playing in Australia representing their country – it's heart-warming for them and their family," Kader said

a group of people playing a game of baseball: Nattakan Chantham, left, grew up playing cricket with a plastic ball.© Alex Ellinghausen Nattakan Chantham, left, grew up playing cricket with a plastic ball.

But with it also comes heartbreak, he said.

"At the end of the day we can't support them professionally," he said. "For a girl, or a boy even, to become good in cricket in Thailand, it takes about 10 years.

"They're smart, hard-working girls, so sometimes they opt to look out for themselves and find a job, but you can't get angry with them, it's a choice of life."

The program now spans 14 of the 76 provinces in Thailand, with most of the young women joining the squad from farming backgrounds.

Vice-captain Nattaya Boochatham, 33, said she sometimes struggled to find a balance between working at a rice plantation and representative cricket.

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Living six hours from the capital, Boochatham said what drove her to play was the "spirit" of the game and the "mutual respect" cricket teams gave one another.

"When we started nobody knew anything about cricket, the Thai public took zero notice of what we were doing, and were ignorant and oblivious to the fact that we had a very good Thai women's team," she said. "We are trying to do our best and represent our country and make everybody proud of everything we have achieved so far to make it a more professional set-up."

When the squad walked into Manuka Oval in Canberra for a trial game, Boochatham said she got goosebumps seeing the size of the stadium.

To allow all the women to train together in Bangkok, their association rents out a house that allows them to live together. The side lives by the motto that if they can handle "to be in a house full of girls with emotions 24 hours a day", then they can manage anything out on the field.

One of the youngest members of the team, Nattakan Chantam, originates from the north of Thailand in a town with more of an expat community than the rest of the squad.

The 24-year-old counts herself as one of the lucky ones as she was able to play at school with a "plastic ball" and grew up watching the Australian women's cricket on the television.

"I didn't know a women's team, a national team would even happen in Thailand. I thought I would only ever play at school," Chantam said.

Despite her parents and her brother still not really understanding the game, she said they had supported her by driving her to practice.

"It's a dream come true, because I saw on TV, the women at the cricket World Cup, and I always thought, I don't know how they would feel about it," she said. "Now, I get to find out."

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