MacLeod spells hope for Scotland
On January 13, 2014, Scottish cricket was threatened with irrelevance. Six weeks earlier, Scotland had failed to be one of the six Associates to qualify for the World T20. Now they lost their opening game in the World Cup Qualifier to Hong Kong, and had to win six consecutive matches to make the 2015 World Cup.
Somehow they managed to pull it off, even going on to beat the UAE in the final to make it seven victories in a row. They will rub shoulders with the elite in Australia and New Zealand as a result.
This remarkable recovery would not have happened without Calum MacLeod, who embodies much of Scottish cricket's newfound vibrancy. He made four international hundreds in 2014, fusing raw power-hitting down the ground with late cuts and scoops. Two centuries in consecutive games in January - a 62-ball 113 against the UAE and 175 against Canada - propelled Scotland to the World Cup.
In many ways MacLeod is a surprising poster boy for Scottish cricket. He is certainly no product of the Edinburgh public schools that in the mistaken assumption of some still dominate Scottish cricket. MacLeod has roots in the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, from where his grandfather moved to Glasgow. He is also a Gaelic speaker. MacLeod attended an inner-city Gaelic School in Glasgow in which, he says, "there wasn't a lot of cricket mentioned or spoken about" let alone played.
It was his father, a social member at a cricket club, who imbued MacLeod with a love of the game. In 2008, just after his 19th birthday, MacLeod was signed by Warwickshire as a pace bowler. The following year, he acted as a substitute fielder for England in an Ashes Test - becoming the first Gaelic speaker to appear in a Test. That little moment of history passed by largely unnoticed.
But MacLeod's career already seemed to be falling apart. A growing number of bowlers today could relate to the reason: coaches were late recognising flaws in his action.
"I developed some bad habits in my bowling action and never really rectified them or did the correct technical work. So I ended up throwing - for want of a better word. I'd rather someone had had the difficult conversation earlier, when the habits were starting to form, because they would have been able to rectify them."
In July 2009, MacLeod's action was reported by the umpires after an Intercontinental Cup match. A year of remedial work followed, including sessions with the former South Africa quick Allan Donald, then bowling coach at Warwickshire, but MacLeod was not much use to his county. He was released at the end of 2010. "I wasn't a good enough batter or a good enough bowler. It was a decision I completely accepted."
|MacLeod acted as a substitute fielder for England in an Ashes Test - becoming the first Gaelic speaker to appear in a Test. That little moment of history passed by largely unnoticed|
As MacLeod's first forays in the Scotland side were batting at No. 9 or 10, the collapse of his bowling threatened to wreck his career. "I wasn't entirely sure what direction I was going to go in. I didn't know whether to give the game up and try something else or go and play hockey."
Even five years earlier, MacLeod might never have recovered. But Cricket Scotland had introduced player contracts at the end of 2008, and MacLeod was given a summer contract for 2011. They were not about to let go of his talent easily.
"Without that in place I don't think I would have been able to come back," he says. "I would have had to have gone and found a job. I wouldn't have been able to train as much and wouldn't have been able to have the enthusiasm to do the extra sessions and do the extra work that I had to do. Plainly I just wouldn't have had the time."
MacLeod scored centuries in youth cricket, but these were "mostly down to shots and luck, as opposed to building an innings properly". He resolved to turn himself from a merry hitter into a batsman of substance. "The biggest thing I had to change was my understanding of the art of batsmanship - how to compose innings and how to do it consistently." At the tail end of his career at Warwickshire he spent copious time watching Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott train. "It's almost more valuable than practice in the nets."
When he returned north of the border, MacLeod had Scottish club cricketers for company instead. It would have been easy to make excuses if his standards had relented, but MacLeod is not the type to do so. "I'm quite single-minded when it comes to my training."
He forced his way into the side as a batsman, and enjoyed some success in the World T20 Qualifiers in March 2012. "It was really after that that I thought 'Maybe I can do this.' I set myself higher standards and began to demand more of myself." Still, MacLeod's form remained inconsistent. Before the World Cup Qualifiers, he had "a pretty frank conversation" with Scotland's captain Kyle Coetzer. "He didn't think that I was scoring the runs that I should be."
MacLeod also benefited from time spent with Paul Collingwood, who coached Scotland last winter. He attributes his upturn to "being able to work closely with him and have the confidence to go out and play aggressively". Collingwood enjoyed working with MacLeod too - so much so that Durham, on his recommendation, signed MacLeod. That was initially just as a T20 player, but MacLeod impressed so much that he was given a permanent contract. He ended his first season back in county cricket by winning the Royal London One-Day Cup. In time, it is even just about conceivable that England could eye up his top-order hitting. "You would think if the opportunity came up, it'd be very hard to turn down," MacLeod says.
Given his circuitous route to success, it is surprising that he is still only 25. But though he may have turned his career around, there is still some way for Scotland to go to rival Afghanistan and Ireland as the world's premier Associate. "We've underachieved over the last five to ten years," he admits. "We need to beat some Full Members. If we manage to do that then the exposure of the game will increase."
Scotland's only victory against a Test side remains a T20 win over Bangladesh in 2012. With his range of shots and improved judgement over when to use them, aligned to his fierce self-belief, MacLeod represents his team's most likely chances of adding to that achievement in the World Cup.
The Auld Enemy, who Scotland face in Christchurch on February 23, should beware MacLeod channeling the spirit of Kevin O'Brien in Bangalore.