When Thailand attempt to force their way back on to cricket’s biggest stage in Abu Dhabi this week, their quest will be led by a player who only happened on the sport by accident.
At No 16 in the ICC’s T20 international standings, Natthakan Chantham will be the highest ranked batter on show at the Women’s T20 World Cup Qualifier.
The eight-team competition in the capital carries with it two places for the main even in South Africa next year.
It may seem odd to those used to mainstream cricket that Thailand are among the favourites to make it. They are the second-highest ranked side in the event, behind Bangladesh.
How Chantham became to be one of the leading lights of the remarkable rise of the Thai women’s side in cricket is curious.
“I had to pick a club in school,” Chantham recalled of her eight-year-old self. “I wanted to pick movie club, but it was already full. Cricket was still empty, so it was really an accident that I picked cricket. I knew nothing about it. So my English teacher became my first coach.”
Her teacher was a Thai national who picked up the rudiments of cricket during the course of learning English.
“We started playing with a plastic ball,” Chantham said. “At that time I knew nothing about cricket.
“When I grew up a bit I found out cricket was played with a leather ball. It was surprise for me. Catching the leather ball was hard. There was no mercy.”
Since the advent of their women’s programme in 2007, Thailand's national team has advanced rapidly. They made their first appearance on the global stage at the last T20 World Cup two years ago.
They might have done the same in the 50-over version, too, had a series of unfortunate events – including the onset of the Omicron variant - not denied them.
Despite their successes, Chantham says word about the sport has not spread far.
“People don’t know about cricket,” Chantham, 26, said. “When I go to the market and I’m wearing a Thailand shirt, people ask me, ‘What sport are you playing?’
“I say cricket, and they say, ‘What is cricket?’ I explain that in cricket we have to use a flat bat, and explain about the ball.
“Then they say, ‘Ah, I know – that’s hockey!’ Then, I’m done. Nobody in Thailand knows much about cricket.”
Thailand were given a wake up call during a quadrangular series in Dubai last week when they lost to Zimbabwe, but Naruemol Chaiwai, their captain, is undaunted.
“Our team’s objective is to win the tournament,” she said. “We are a strong unit and have great teamwork and everyone will contribute to our success.
“In the last three months we travelled to India to train. We had a chance to play games with state teams and academy teams. We faced a variety of bowlers and played on different type of pitches that will help us adjust quickly and figure out our options.
“Covid-19 has kept us away from international competition. To come back and play in this tournament, it is quite exciting for me.”
UAE have suffered defeats over the past week, but they had reason to cheer in their warm up game against Bangladesh in the return of Esha Oza.
The big-hitting batter had suffered a facial injury in practice during the Quadrangular series.
“We have a lot of potential and talented players on board and on a given day anyone could be a match winner for us,” Chaya Mughal, the UAE captain, said.
“We have been preparing and working really hard despite the weather being extremely hot. Our outdoor centre wicket practice and match stimulation is something that is really helping us at present.
“Clearing the boundary ropes is something that we have been focusing on and we will be utilising that in the coming games.
“Playing at this level itself is a challenge considering the teams that we are going to face have already played the World Cup and we are very much prepared for this. We are not taking any pressure on us and just playing one game at a time.”