Set in spacious grounds in Ravelston, the very epitome of a leafy suburb in the west of Edinburgh, the Mary Erskine School is one of the oldest independent educational institutions in that venerable old city. Founded in 1694 by philanthropist Mary Erskine and the Edinburgh Company of Merchants to house and educate the daughters of local traders, the all-girl establishment is today home to around 750 boarding and day pupils. And also, within the school boundaries, the National Cricket Centre, the training facilities and administrative hub of Cricket Scotland.
‘An outstanding school: happy pupils, happy staff – focused on self-development with impressive results’, reads the Good Schools Guide review of Mary Erskine’s. But such an assessment is just as valid when it comes to their tenants too.
It may have been a disappointingly lean summer in terms of fixtures for the national side but there is a palpable sense of anticipation around Scottish cricket these days. In his first year as chief executive Malcolm Cannon has overseen a complete overhaul of the structure of the governing body as well as the publication of an ambitious three-year strategic plan for the development of the game across the country, building on the work which earned Cricket Scotland the ICC’s Best Overall Development Award for 2016.
On the field Scotland’s women are looking forward to a first appearance at the ICC World Cup Global Qualifier in the New Year whilst the men put themselves into a strong position in the World Cricket League (WCL) with emphatic summer wins over UAE and Hong Kong.
For National Head Coach Grant Bradburn, however, those victories represent the green shoots of a beginning rather than any sort of culmination. Having taken his side to the last two global ICC events, the 2015 World Cup and the World Twenty20 earlier this year, the former New Zealand international is convinced that Scotland are rapidly developing the tools to become genuine contenders on the world stage.
“I couldn’t be happier with where the team is right now actually,” he said. “The cricket we played against UAE and Hong Kong was the best I’ve seen in my time with the side. I am not disrespecting either of those teams in any way when I say that they are two sides that we should beat, but the way in which we went about our batting, bowling and fielding and the determination that we showed in those matches was part of a planned shift in how we approach each game and I’m really happy that it culminated in two superb series wins.”
Scottish sport has tended to make an art form of the glorious defeat. In football, for every David Narey or Archie Gemmill moment of inspiration there has been a Peruvian or Costa Rican banana skin to bring the nation crashing back to earth. Bradburn is determined that Scottish cricket will not follow a similar path or be content to hide behind any Braveheart-style clichés.
“The Twenty20 World Cup at the start of the year was bittersweet for us. We were hugely proud of the fact that we got that first win on a global stage [against Hong Kong] but we were absolutely gutted not to get over the line in the games against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.
“When we came home, though, it gave us a great opportunity to take stock of exactly where we were. For me it was a chance to put a stake in the ground and look to inspire a change in our guys. I want the team to be comfortable playing a dynamic style of cricket, a winning style.”
A year that has been notable for its comparative lack of international cricket has ironically turned into one of real significance for the future of Bradburn’s team. The coach is confident that he has the right personnel in place and that the players are united in a commitment to put right the flaws of the past.
“As a squad we have made some significant strides in accepting that there have been too many ‘almost’ victories,” he said. “At the start of the summer season, after a great deal of self-reflection and consulting with staff and key players, I presented a new direction to our team, essentially giving a choice between us continuing as we are or looking to take a tougher road.
“Everyone bought into the fact that we have to take that harder path and accept that we need to make changes. We need to address the fact that when the game is in the balance we don’t kill teams off, we let go of victory opportunities. In 2015 it was hugely disappointing not to get over the line against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, even against England, and those games were amongst the examples that I presented in that session.
“Winning performances have to be our currency. It’s not about how many runs you get or wickets you take or what your average is, it’s about how many times you turn your performance into a winning one and put the team into the position to win and win again.
“It’s about not accepting mediocrity, not accepting those near misses and not accepting the Scottish trait of being ‘brave fighters’. That last aspect has never been in doubt. I have huge admiration for the way the guys fight and come together as a strong team, they love playing for Scotland and they love playing together, but at the moment we simply don’t win enough.
“So that was the most pleasing thing this summer, sitting and watching how the performances against UAE and Hong Kong unfolded. The determination to put performances on the board that turned into winning contributions was significant and it was really cool to see.”
Those first appearances on the global stage since the 2009 World T20 provided the group with an invaluable insight into where the team is and where they must aspire to be.
“The real beauty of going to those two World Cups is that it’s shown the guys where the line is,” said Bradburn. “It showed them where their fielding needs to be, how accurate they need to be with their bowling, how their fitness needs to be, that they need to make quality decisions for longer in a game. In those tournaments we were able to compete with every team for a period of time but not for long enough. But now we know exactly where the line is and moving forward we base everything we do against that measure.”
The crucial test will come next year as the WCL reaches a climax. Scotland lie third in the table with fixtures against Namibia, leaders PNG and Kenya to come, and with a berth in the ICCs proposed ODI league the potential reward for winning the tournament the stakes could not be higher.
“The WCL presents a fantastic opportunity for us. We’ve got six games left against three opponents that we should beat,” said Bradburn. “Clearly that is our number one goal.
“We need to grab every opportunity that we can,” he continued. “We want to keep putting ourselves into a position to keep moving towards our goal of becoming a Full Member nation or at least into the top twelve in the world.”
But the onward journey will have to continue without Preston Mommsen. The news of the Scotland captain’s retirement to pursue a business career is a blow to a side which will now have to deal with the dual loss of both an inspirational leader and a player at the peak of his game.
“Preston will be hugely missed,” said Bradburn. “We’re really pleased for him but to lose a player of his quality is significant and he will leave a big hole that will be difficult to fill. He’s played against the best and is at a stage where he has worked out his game and we are sad to lose that.
“Preston was fantastic in accepting that even as captain he needed to make improvements to secure his place in the side because the competition is fierce. You need to be respected as a player first and then as a captain and that was the really pleasing thing, the way he trained was very specific, very determined, and it was a fantastic example to the rest of the team.
“So we will miss him, but the Associate game will miss him too. Preston has been a real champion for the next tier of nations. I think the line between Associate and Full Member is now blurring and a lot of the credit for that needs to go to guys like Preston who are prepared to speak up and lead by example.”
The influence of Preston Mommsen as player, captain and role model has been considerable but Project Scotland will continue to move forward with an optimism driven by that focus on self-improvement. For Bradburn, it is the key that has revitalised his team.
“I would have loved to have taken this current crop of players to the 2015 World Cup actually. By and large it’s the same personnel but it’s a different team. Moving forward there is so much more clarity in the way we want to play the game, we’re accepting that we are playing to our strengths with a dynamic brand of cricket that everyone is enjoying.”
And if, like Mary Erskine’s, that leads to a continuation of the impressive results of last summer, the long-term future is genuinely exciting.