Jake Perry chats to Abbi Aitken
That 2017 will go down as a year of mixed emotions for Scotland’s Women is perhaps the most telling indication of the distance they have travelled. Their appearance at the Women’s World Cup Qualifier in February featured a victory against Papua New Guinea and a much-praised performance against South Africa while a table-topping performance on home soil in August secured a place in the final stages of an ICC Qualifying event for the third time in succession. There is, though, a tangible feeling around the Scotland camp that the true potential of this squad is yet to be revealed.
Of all their recent assignments it was the Global Qualifier in Sri Lanka which provided the sternest examination of Steve Knox’s side. It offered the most useful learning opportunities, too, as the team measured themselves against three of the top ten countries in the world game.
“It was an incredibly valuable experience,” said Scotland captain Abbi Aitken. “The opportunity to compete at another global tournament and put ourselves up against some of the best in the world was always going to be of benefit.
“To play on different wickets and in different conditions, too, is an experience that the younger girls in the squad will have taken a lot from as well.”
In Scotland’s opening match a half-century from Kari Carswell backed by a tight performance in the field made much-fancied South Africa work hard for their six-wicket win. Subsequent defeats to Bangladesh and Pakistan were to put an end to any Scottish hopes of progression, however, although a seven-run victory over PNG at least provided some consolation.
“Playing South Africa will live long in the memory and to give them a bit of a scare was pretty cool,” said Abbi. “But overall I look back on that tournament with slightly mixed emotions as I think we let ourselves down against some of the lower-ranked teams. Although we beat PNG we let them get far too close to us, especially after we’d put in the performance we did against South Africa three days before.
“It’s all about belief. I asked the girls to tell me many of them genuinely believed that we could win before the South Africa game. It’s easy for any group of sportspeople to say that they have belief but I think we learned as a group that if we genuinely believe then who knows what could happen?
“PNG was the other side of the coin,” she continued. “We had confidence but faced a different issue in that we’re not used to being the favourite and there’s no doubt that that affected our performance.
“It is a mindset we need to change. We need to be comfortable being the favourite because if we continue to train and work as we are then there will be more games in the future where we are in that position.”
Scotland’s domestic summer saw progress matched by consolidation as the team secured a mid-table finish in Division Two of the NatWest Twenty20.
“Over the past two or three seasons of domestic cricket we’ve moved up, then down, then up again, so during pre-season we agreed that our goal for this year was to cement our place in Division Two,” said Abbi. “With Sri Lanka in mind we had focused on the fifty-over format the season before so we were happy to achieve that target in T20.
“We’ll be looking to make a bit more of an impact next year though. Last time out we only showed flashes of what we are capable of so we’re looking to learn from the experience and go into the new campaign with the goal of winning the division. That would obviously be a great thing for us to achieve.”
Scotland’s year ended with the ICC Europe/Americas Qualifier for the 2018 Women’s World T20 against the Netherlands and USA. In a rain-affected week in Stirling the Scots secured one of the two available places at the upcoming Global Qualifier as winners of the competition.
“We had a great win against the Netherlands first up,” said Abbi. “They will no doubt have been disappointed by how they played but we put in an excellent performance. The pre-match words of the Dutch captain certainly helped us prepare, too.
“[Heather Siegers’] talk of exacting revenge for [Scotland’s victory] last year and coming over here to kick backside was definitely played in our changing room before the match and got the girls fired up a wee bit more!”
The seven-wicket win over the Dutch was followed by a nine-wicket victory over the USA, and although the Netherlands triumphed by eighteen runs in the final match of the competition Scotland had done enough to retain their trophy by virtue of a superior run-rate.
“We want to bring up a generation of players who continuously put in winning performances against teams like the Netherlands,” said Abbi. “Six or seven years ago I was brought into a Scotland team where we certainly weren’t the favourites to win these games. Although they came out on top in that last match it’s great that we have turned the tables over the past few years. It’s always a good competition with the Dutch and hopefully the overall picture continues to be one that’s in our favour.”
Scotland has had to deal with some notable losses over the course of the year. The post-Sri Lankan retirements of Kari Carswell and Fiona Urquhart together with the unavailability of Kirstie Gordon have been significant, but as the matches in Stirling demonstrated others have moved to fill the vacuum. With 118 runs at 59 Lorna Jack proved to be a revelation at the top of the order, and with Sarah Bryce showing moments of brilliance in her new role behind the stumps, too, the remodelled side gives plenty of reason for optimism.
“Massive credit needs to go to Lorna,” said Abbi. “She has been a great wicketkeeper for us over the years but it was fantastic for her to finally cement her place in the batting line-up this year.
“After losing a few people we have needed players to step up and being a senior member of the squad it was great that Jacko did that. Fingers crossed that it’ll be a successful season for her next time as well.
“The Qualifier gave us an opportunity to bring a few younger girls into the set-up as well,” she continued. “Laura Grant came up from the U17s and for her to be around the team in Stirling and understand how a tournament like that works will stand her in great stead going forward.
“It’s opportunities like that which are so important for the development of our players and as the seasons go by more and more are created. It’s exciting for the future.”
But for Abbi the year has been significant for more personal reasons, too, as in late October the news emerged that she had decided to step away from the national captaincy after seven years at the helm. It was a necessary decision, she says, for both her own future and that of the team.
“It’s been a difficult year from a personal point of view,” she explained. “Over the past year and a half I’ve struggled with a foot injury and my personal performance has suffered badly as a result.
“Putting the captaincy aside I am picked in the team as a bowler and not being able to bowl a ball in the [Europe/Americas] Qualifier was tough for me. Without a doubt I had thoughts in my head that captain or not I was taking up a shirt.
“To me the captain should be a main contributor to the team as well as the leader and I wasn’t doing that. I had probably lost a bit of my love for the game, too, and I felt that it wasn’t fair for me to continue as captain if my heart and my head weren’t fully in it.
“It’s a real compliment that Steve [Knox] kept me in the team whether I was bowling or not. Leading the side is a role in itself but I’ve always wanted to be a captain that can both lead and contribute. If I wasn’t able to do both then I didn’t want to continue in the role.
“I sat down with Steve and was completely honest. I told him that I needed to find my passion again. I’m certainly not ready to give up completely but something needed to change if I was going to start to enjoy the game in the same way again.
“To be honest it was probably time for a bit of a freshen-up as well. After hearing my voice for seven years the girls will probably be feeling a little bit relieved!” she laughed.
Abbi had been appointed captain as a nineteen year-old as Kari Carswell moved from the captaincy into the role of Head Coach.
“I had made my Scotland debut at fourteen so I was practically a veteran by the time I became captain!” said Abbi. “My initial reaction was probably ‘woah there’ but I was massively honoured to be asked at such a young age. There were a lot of players who were older than me and had played for much longer in the team so I naturally had doubts about whether I was ready to do it.
“But having Kari there was brilliant for me,” she continued. “She was still on the pitch as a player and to be fair to her she probably still did everything for the first couple of seasons. I did have to learn quickly but Kari always said to me that while tactical awareness would develop over time the fact that I had such a good relationship with the players was just as important.
“I took that as a huge compliment. From a young age I’ve been able to understand how people work, I suppose, and that always helped me as captain.
“It was a role that taught me to be confident, even during those times when that confidence had to be faked, and if I was to pass on one piece of advice to my successor it would be to trust gut instinct. It always served me well.”
The announcement of Abbi’s departure was met with heartfelt tributes from across the cricketing community. What pleases the twenty-six year old most, however, is that the legacy being passed to her successor is an environment in which Scottish women’s cricket is stronger than ever before.
“It’s been a whirlwind journey but the transformation of Scotland Women from seven years ago to where we are now has been huge,” she said. “We’re more knowledgeable, fitter and so much better supported from within Cricket Scotland.
“I’ll look back and say that my job over the past seven years has been to be a voice for the girls, to promote the fact that we’re here and on the up. The ultimate highlight for me was to be able to witness that journey.
“The real highlight for Scotland’s Women is yet to come, though. Watch this space!”
And, with another outing on the global stage to look forward to next year, could it come as early as next summer?
“We’re very much focused on the [ICC Women’s WT20 Global] Qualifier,” said Abbi. “It looks like it will be in July which will dovetail nicely with our T20 Division Two campaign.
“It will be an exciting couple of weeks. There has already been a shock with Uganda knocking Zimbabwe out of the tournament in the Africa Qualifier. Zimbabwe beat us in Thailand [in the 2015 WWT20Q] in the third place play-off so not having them there this time will make things interesting.
“With two places available at the main tournament Ireland and Bangladesh will be the ultimate favourites as the two highest-ranked sides but I would expect it to be us ranked next. It’s definitely an opportunity for us.
“We have never played Uganda before, it will be interesting to see what they have, and the Dutch are sure to bring a strong team, but fingers crossed we can put a bit of pressure on Bangladesh and Ireland and see what happens.
“The Caribbean would be quite nice to head to in November!” she smiled.
Jake Perry writes on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotland and CricketEurope and is a regular contributor to HoldingWilley.