ICC Women's T20 World Cup 2020
Thai fighters plan to win more than hearts
The World Cup underdogs are in Australia to compete and their fascinating cricket journey continues in Perth against the West Indies later today
Laura Jolly previously wrote for News Corp Australia and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, and is now cricket.com.au Women's Cricket Editor providing dedicated coverage to all aspects of the women's game
They're yet to bowl a ball in the Women's T20 World Cup, but one early prediction is already proving true: Thailand's trailblazers are winning hearts wherever they go.
The lead-up to this global ICC event was heavily – and understandably – focused on defending champions and hosts Australia, and on the attempt to break a world record by filling the MCG for the final on International Women's Day.
But an encounter with the Thailand squad is a refreshing reminder of everything else that makes World Cups special, when players from vastly different backgrounds and cultures come together to show their skills in front of the world.
Led by their charismatic and energetic captain Sornnarin Tippoch, Thailand come into this tournament as the underdogs, but rest assured, regardless of their on-field fortunes, they will be the cult heroes of this World Cup.
The Thailand team are just a little bit excited for their @t20worldcup debut! Their enthusiasm promises to make them cult heroes this tournament! pic.twitter.com/XuqqptAYmv— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) February 15, 2020
Just watch for the moment after their tournament opener against West indies in Perth on Saturday evening, when irrespective of the result, they will bow to the crowd, the ground staff and the umpires, as a show of respect for those who have come to watch them.
That's not to say the joy is only in being here for Thailand – they want to win – but their excitement at being part of this event is palpable and infectious.
"We're excited. Very, very excited," Tippoch said last week in Brisbane, where her team have been preparing since arriving in Australia.
"This is a very proud moment for us, it's the first World Cup for us and we've been preparing for a long time.
"Now it's our time to shine."
Last year, Tippoch's side broke new ground by becoming the first team from south-east Asia to quality for the main tournament, when they made the final of the official qualifying event alongside winners Bangladesh.
Along the way, they defeated higher-ranked opposition in Ireland, and they did it far from home in Scotland.
The Thai players come from all over their country, with vastly varying backgrounds.
But they are a close-knit group, not least of all because they all live in the same house in Bangkok, rented out by the Cricket Association of Thailand.
That of course comes with its own unique challenges – imagine sharing a house with 15 other adults, who you also spend all your time training and playing with – but their closeness and familiarity is serving them well as they prepare for their greatest test to date.
"We spend a lot of time together, so we're very close," opening batter Natthakan Chantam said.
"We look at each other as a family."
How Thailand made it this far is a remarkable tale in itself.
They only played their first international match in 2007, against Bangladesh.
Most of the players have a background in domestic softball leagues – none have had the advantage of growing up with the sport as their counterparts in the other World Cup nations have.
That made development a slow prospect in the early days, as players learnt the sport from scratch, but gradually, Thailand's cricket gathered momentum.
They won the Asian Cricket Council's championship in 2013, thus winning a place at the T20 World Cup qualifiers in Ireland the same year – giving them their first taste of cricket against teams outside their region.
Further appearances at World Cup qualifiers in 2015, 2017 and 2018 followed – all were unsuccessful – before finally they broke through at last year's event in Scotland.
Captain Tippoch has been there for the entire journey – she was 21 when her talent was spotted while playing softball at university.
Now the 33-year-old can't believe her luck at finally appearing on the world stage.
"We want to show the world we can play cricket, we can play good cricket," she said.
"In Thailand, they don't know about cricket, but we want to show them."
The Thai players cannot watch live matches at home – no local channel broadcasts cricket – so instead they lap up every highlight they can find, be it on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram.
Aggressive opener Chantam has modelled her approach on England opener Danni Wyatt – and the chance to see the attacking Englishwoman go about her business when the teams meet at Manuka Oval on February 26 is something she is eagerly anticipating.
"In the Powerplay, all the fielders are up and everywhere there is a big gap for me to hit a boundary," she said.
"It's a chance to score runs quickly. My mentality is to look to hit four runs through the gaps.
"My plan is different to Chaiwai's. I only try to hit along the ground and get her on strike when I can. She can be very dangerous.
"My favourite player to watch is Wyatt and I can't wait to watch her play against us. I like how aggressive and confident she is at the crease."
Thailand left no stone unturned in their preparation for this event, training in Canberra in December while their batters also travelled to Pune for an intensive training camp.
They warmed up for the tournament with a quadrangular series in January, against Bangladesh and two Indian sides.
Aside from their social media research, Thailand's coaches have also ensured their players have vision to analyse ahead of their matches, giving them a taste of what to expect in this event.
In their group, the only team they have previously played is Pakistan, while England, South Africa and the West Indies present entirely new challenges.
But as coach Harshal Pathak explained, the focus for Thailand will be on getting the best out of their own games, a tactic aimed at avoiding becoming overawed at the prospect of facing the pace of Shabnim Ismail and Katherine, or bowling to the likes of Lizelle Lee and Heather Knight.
It's an approach that has served them well in the past, particularly during their run of 17 consecutive victories across 2018 and 2019, a run that included wins over the likes of Nepal, China, Ireland and Scotland.
"Of course, we can win a game at this tournament," Pathak said.
"We have come to Australia to look to win some games.
"We have to do the little things correctly, and the results will come.
"We are basically here to compete and when you're competing, the game teaches you some lessons.
"We are looking to learn from those and get better."
2020 ICC Women's T20 World Cup
Australia squad: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Erin Burns, Nicola Carey, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy (wk), Jess Jonassen, Delissa Kimmince, Sophie Molineux, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Molly Strano, Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham
February 21: India won by 17 runs
February 24: Australia v Sri Lanka, WACA Ground
February 27: Australia v Bangladesh, Manuka Oval
March 8: Final, MCG
For a full list of all World Cup fixtures, click HERE
* All matches will be broadcast on Fox Cricket and Kayo, while Australia’s matches will also be broadcast on the Nine Network