In a country where a Muay Thai right hook is more familiar than a batter’s hook shot, Thailand’s pioneering female cricketers are winning hearts with smiles, dance moves — and skill.
In contrast with Asian powerhouses India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — countries where the game has deep historical roots going back to British imperial rule — cricket remains in its infancy in Thailand and is still virtually unknown.
In 2020, Thailand qualified for the Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia, where the hosts beat India in the final, but further progress is being hampered by minimal exposure on TV and a lack of access to equipment.
They have experienced heartbreak, too. Thailand were on course to reach the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand in March, but saw their dream shattered when the qualifying tournament was abandoned because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All-rounder Chanida Sutthiruang played in the T20 World Cup, where Thailand failed to win in four games and bowed out in the group stage.
She says that even her family struggles to grasp the sport.
“Most people in Thailand associate cricket with hockey. My parents don’t understand what cricket is,” the 28-year-old said.
At an early morning training session on the outskirts of Bangkok, Natthakan Chantam is all smiles as a bowling machine spits 100kph deliveries at her.
“I love the celebrations when you score a run or get someone out... There are celebrations in every moment of the game,” said the 26-year-old opener, Thailand’s top run scorer at the T20 World Cup.
“I think that’s the charm of cricket,” she added.
Thailand made their international debut in 2007, but have drastically improved in the past three years, said their Indian head coach, Harshal Pathak.
“We like to play cricket with an aggressive brand... There’s an intent in everything — the way we bat, the way we field, the way we bowl. There’s a business-like attitude,” he said. “The girls want to make a mark for themselves.”
He praised the team’s spin attack and said fielding was another strength, with batting developing.
“We’re at a stage where we are mastering how to complete games and how to build innings,” Harshal Pathak added.
The country’s cricket association started offering full and part-time contracts about 10 years ago, which stopped a talent drain caused by women from poorer rural backgrounds being unable to afford to play.
However, their biggest recent setback was the failure to reach the 50-over Women’s Cricket World Cup in New Zealand, the jewel in the sport’s international calendar.
Thailand won three out of four matches, but the November qualifying series in Zimbabwe was abandoned because of the emergence of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 in southern Africa.
The three remaining World Cup places were handed out based on one-day international rankings, meaning that Bangladesh, Pakistan and the West Indies qualified.
“We felt so empty,” Sutthiruang said. “One minute we were celebrating a win and then a minute later we were told we were disqualified and we had to rush to the airport to get back to Thailand because of Omicron.”
Whatever happens, former Australian captain-turned-commentator Lisa Sthalekar said they will continue to win hearts with their captivating smiles, on-field dancing and traditional bowing.
“They played in a spirit that reminded you of when you first started playing the game,” Sthalekar said. “It wasn’t: ‘I’m in a T20 World Cup — it’s do or die, we have to win.’ It’s like: ‘How cool is this?’”
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