ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2021
The Australians leading a Dutch cricket revolution
From Adelaide to Amsterdam and Hong Kong to Holland, a group of Australians are playing a key role in the rapid rise of Netherlands cricket
December 2017. A group of 15 cricketers stand nervously beyond the boundary line of the unimaginatively named ICC Academy Oval 1 in Dubai, just moments after one of the most important victories in the centuries-long history of cricket in their country.
But this is no time for celebration. Just minutes after the Netherlands have hit the winning runs at the adjacent Oval 2, it’s what's happening in front of them now that has the potential to define careers and reshape the future of Dutch cricket.
Among this cohort are four Australians who have all trodden vastly different paths to this point, united now as pivotal role players in the cricketing journey of a country miles from their own.
The atmosphere is thick with tension, as it has been for the previous eight hours of cut-throat cricket. Hell, the mood has been tense for more than two-and-a-half years.
"They're like Russian roulette, those qualifiers," says head coach Ryan Campbell, the former Australia representative and WA stalwart, who has taken an unlikely path to the top of Dutch cricket.
"It's the toughest cricket you'll ever imagine, playing under that sort of pressure."
As the winter sunlight dims on that historic Wednesday evening, the Dutch watch Papua New Guinea lose their final wicket, consigning the Pacific nation to defeat at the hands of Hong Kong and ensuring the Netherlands are winners of the 2015-2017 World Cricket League.
But it's not just the title of WCL champions that these orange-clad players have been chasing. It's what it represents that matters.
It means they have regained their ODI status, which they had embarrassingly let slip almost four years earlier as they plummeted to what is essentially the third division of the global game.
It means they will play a guaranteed 24 ODIs against the world's best teams over a two-year period, more than the total number of one-day internationals they've played in the previous two decades.
It means a chance to sell these matches to broadcasters and advertisers, which will generate much-needed revenue for a group of players who, on the international stage, are not fully professional.
It means everything.
"People often say to me that coaching an Associate team must be easy," Campbell says. "I'm like, 'Mate, are you kidding?'.
"The (Melbourne) Renegades have won seven of 28 matches in the last two years of the Big Bash. They're horrible. But what's happened to them? Nothing. They lost a coach, maybe some players.
"Mate, if I won seven of 28 matches, I don't make it to the World Cup, I lose all my funding, I lose my whole program, players can't play, and we don't have any coaches. You can win or lose your ODI status on one dropped catch.
"Now, you go out to bat knowing that you need to make 10 more runs so you can have a career next year.
"Now that's pressure."
Pressure and Ben Cooper have been almost constant companions for the past eight years.
At the age of 21, having drifted from his hometown of Lismore on the NSW north coast to club cricket in Darwin, Hobart and Adelaide, Cooper followed his older brother Tom, the former Australia A and South Australia player, to the Netherlands in the winter of 2013, with the siblings holding Dutch passports thanks to their mother's heritage.
Initially seeking a European adventure with maybe a bit of cricket thrown in, Ben Cooper instead found himself playing at international level by the end of that northern summer.
While brother Tom eventually re-focused on the Australian system in the hope of playing for the country of his birth, Ben has since established himself as one of the Netherlands' most reliable players in a team with a distinct Aussie flavour.
In addition to coach Campbell and Cooper, former NSW and Tasmania fast bowler Timm van der Gugten – who also plays county cricket with Glamorgan – and Melbourne first grader Scott Edwards are also expected to be part of the Netherlands squad at this year's T20 World Cup.
They are amongst a group of players with a rapidly growing reputation. Veterans Ryan ten Doeschate and Roelof van der Merwe have been established on the international scene for some time, while allrounder Colin Ackerman (who captains Leicestershire in England) as well as fast bowlers Freddie Klaassen (Kent), Brandon Glover (Northamptonshire) and Shane Snater (Essex) all play regular county cricket in the UK.
But it's Cooper who has been the unlikely driving force behind the Dutch's recent rise.
The tall, left-handed top-order batsman is the country's highest-ever run scorer in T20 internationals and, in the 50-over game, his unbeaten century in a record-breaking partnership of 236 helped seal their WCL win on that memorable Dubai evening almost four years ago.
With the future of Dutch cricket on the line, Cooper's innings that day was a masterclass in handling pressure, a skill he and his teammates have all had to develop in the cut-throat world of Associate cricket.
Of the 133 games Cooper has played for the Netherlands at international level, 94 have had direct consequences beyond just the match itself, where winning and losing one critical moment could ultimately mean the difference between qualifying for a World Cup and not.
It's cricket's version of a football relegation battle and a burden unique to the Associate game. Cooper doesn't pretend it's any more demanding than the expectation on Full Member nations such as Australia, who play primarily bilateral cricket, but he says it's a mental load that can take a toll.
"It is very different and obviously everyone will deal with it differently," he says. "You've just got to focus on your job when you walk out on the field.
"As long as you're winning, that pressure can fade away a little bit. But in qualifiers if you're not winning, all that pressure can start to build up."
The pressure on the likes of Cooper extends beyond the field as well. While seven of the leading Dutch players have the luxury of a professional county contract to support their passion of playing for their country, Cooper relies on a barely liveable wage from playing the game in Holland, which he supplements with a labouring job in Adelaide when he returns home most summers.
The gulf between the haves and have nots in the international game was only exacerbated by the pandemic, which led to a 530-day absence from the field for the Dutch team at the most critical juncture in their history. Last October, as the world's leading players were participating in the big-money IPL, fast bowler Paul van Meekeren noted that on the day he would have been playing in the T20 World Cup had the pandemic not intervened, he was instead working as an Uber Eats driver.
But despite the harsh financial realities of playing Associate cricket, despite most players in the Dutch team having strong roots in countries outside the Netherlands, their passion for representing 'the Oranje' runs deep. So much so that Cooper concedes if he is ever offered the chance to play for Australia, where he was born and has spent most of his life, he would have to think twice about it.
"It's always a tough question and I don't actually know if I could answer it at the moment," he says.
"Playing for Australia was always the dream as the kid. But with the way things are, playing for Australia now would mean a three- or four-year wait before I could play for Holland again. So I'm actually not too sure which way I'd go, to be honest.
"I do (have a passion for the Netherlands). Some people might find that weird, but at the end of the day, it's still part of my heritage and my family. Whether it's an Australian shirt or a Dutch shirt, I'm still going to play with passion and pride when I represent my country."
Cooper's passion is matched only by the infectious enthusiasm of Campbell, who has no Dutch roots and concedes he barely thought about the Netherlands and their place in the cricketing landscape until he was in his forties.
Having retired from playing at the age of 34 after a stellar 12-year career that was highlighted by two ODIs in 2002, Campbell found himself busier than ever, but somewhat adrift. Running a management company and with media commitments in both television and radio, he effectively walked away from the sport and concedes now that he had lost his way. But in 2008, having been coaxed out of retirement by former WA teammate Damien Martyn to take part in the ill-fated Indian Cricket League, his fire for the game was reignited.
When Charlie Burke, the then head coach of Hong Kong and another friend from Perth, suggested Campbell apply for the vacant role of player-coach of the famous Kowloon Cricket Club, he viewed it as a chance to escape Australia for six months and take a chance.
Almost a decade later, his global coaching odyssey is showing no signs of slowing down.
His exposure to the game in Hong Kong opened his eyes to the world of the Associates, where the amateur nations on the second rung of the global game have to scrap for every morsel of financial or on-field incentive the International Cricket Council might throw their way.
"Before I went to Hong Kong, I didn't understand Associate cricket," he says.
"I was brought up in the Australian system ... (where) everything's provided, you've got the best facilities everywhere. It's not until you go into the Associate world that you start to understand how tough people have to do it.
"After Hong Kong, I'm all about the Associates."
Having worked with the Hong Kong national team, which even included a shock comeback to playing at the age of 44, Campbell's new-found passion led him to throw his name forward for the vacant role with the Netherlands in 2017. And having fallen in love, married and started a family in Hong Kong with a woman who just happens to be Dutch, the stars aligned for a move to Europe.
In the four years since, Campbell has overseen the Dutch team's rise to a point where he says the next two years are "the most important page" in the Netherlands' 140-year history.
Having taken part in the past two T20 World Cups, which included a famous win over a full-strength England side in 2014, the Netherlands booked their place at this year's event after winning a 2019 qualifier tournament and are hopeful of playing in next year's competition in Australia as well.
Their WCL title win in 2017 secured qualification for the inaugural ODI Super League, the new-look qualification path for the 2023 50-over World Cup that involves the top 13 teams in the world. Campbell concedes finishing in the top eight of the Super League and earning direct qualification for the showpiece event will likely be beyond his team, but playing fully-fledged three-match series' against the likes of England, Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand in the next two years is an opportunity his team has not previously been afforded.
And while the top countries have so far responded to the Super League with varying levels of indifference, often resting some of their leading players, the competition means the world to Campbell's men as well as the likes of Ireland and Zimbabwe.
Not only would a top 12 finish in the Super League guarantee a spot in the secondary World Cup qualifier tournament in two years, it would also secure a berth in the next three-year cycle of the Super League and the security of more matches, more often against the best teams in the world.
"(That) would then give us a seven-year period in total of having consistent cricket that we can sell to sponsors, that we can sell to the TV networks, that we can have our next generation of kids aspiring to play," Campbell says, adding their Super League debut against Ireland a month ago was the first time the national team had been broadcast live on Dutch television.
"In every game, there are 10 points on the line. And the big teams, they still think, 'Oh well, it's just another series, who cares?'. But when Ireland beat England (in Southampton last year), I could have ripped my hair out. I don't want to downplay that win because it was a fantastic game ... and Ireland deserved to win. But England's response was, 'Oh well, it doesn't really matter'.
"When Zimbabwe beat Pakistan (in April), Pakistan don't really care. But for us, that's 10 more points I have to overcome.
"Every game is important for us."
But while the Dutch have been given a rare chance to mix it with the big boys, there are always some not-so-subtle reminders of where they stand in the global pecking order.
There was the international body's decision a decade ago to reduce the 50-over World Cup to just 10 teams, effectively locking these smaller nations out of the game's biggest event, which Campbell says "really put a knife into the heart of a lot of Associates" (That decision has since been reversed, with the ICC announcing last month that the 50-over and 20-over World Cups will soon be expanded to 14 and 20 teams respectively).
There's the knowledge that India, upon which global cricket's economy relies so heavily, reportedly receive almost double the annual funding from the ICC that the 92 Associates receive combined.
There's the reality, much to Campbell's disappointment, that the Netherlands will probably never play Test cricket, at least not under his watch. The effective cancellation of the first-class Intercontinental Cup in 2017 and the fact Test matches leave most countries significantly in the red makes the longest form of the game a pursuit realistic only for a select few.
There's the fact their 2-1 series win over Ireland last month came despite them missing four of their best players – ten Doeschate, van der Merwe, Ackerman and Snater – who wanted to play but stayed with their county sides despite ICC rules demanding mandatory release for such fixtures. It's a club versus country debate that is a constant juggling act for Campbell, who must tread a fine line between requesting the ICC regulations be enforced and not creating a rift between his players and the counties, which are their primary employer.
Even at a micro level, cricket in an Associate country is worlds away from the sport in a Test-playing nation. There is not a single professional curator in the Netherlands, with the country's seven turf wickets prepared by volunteers and most junior matches played on unpredictable matting, producing flawed batting techniques that are difficult to correct.
While conceding the complicated economic realities of the global game don't always make the plight of Associate nations the highest priority, Campbell says the sport will ultimately be better off if the game's most influential countries take a broader view.
"They've just got to stop talking about themselves, in all honesty," he says.
"You can talk about India generating all the money and all that, but who cares? At the end of the day, you want cricket to be a global sport. You don't want it to be India, Australia and England. I love Australia and I love watching the Ashes, but do I want to watch that every summer? Not for me.
"I would love 'The Big Three' (India, England and Australia) to understand that they've got a massive responsibility to world cricket. My philosophy is that when I leave a place, it has to be in a better place than when I started. It's not about the now, it's about the tomorrow.
"You've got to put the case of the high-performing Associates first, the next six teams, because we are closing the gap on the big teams."
But despite the obstacles, the message from both Campbell and Cooper is simple; those who give the next rung down a chance, like the five Associate teams at this year's T20 World Cup, might be surprised with that they find.
They have seen it all before. The famous Dutch wins over England in 2009 and 2014. Ireland beating Pakistan, England and the West Indies at consecutive World Cups before they gained Full Member status in 2017. Hong Kong beating Bangladesh in 2014 and Scotland beating England just three years ago.
The gap is closing, and it's closing fast.
"I think there is (a misconception that) just because we're not a Full Member or a Test nation, we're not as good as them," Cooper says.
"But in my time, I've played in a couple of T20 World Cups and in 2014, we beat England and probably should have beaten NZ and South Africa.
"The ability and the talent and the passion is there within these Associate teams. The world just needs to keep an eye on Associate cricket because we are getting better.
"I don't want to say we're more passionate than the Test nations … but we want to prove it to the world that we can compete with Test nations. It is there. We have the ability.
"Just watch us."